One of the handful of *good* habits I’ve developed over the last couple bizarre years (we won’t talk about the bad habits) is trying to spend a little bit of time almost every night reading. And that means I’ve been able to read a LOT more books! So in a ritual I started a couple years ago, I wanted to share the 10 best books that I read in 2021.
Now, an important caveat—these are *my* best books of 2021, not based on when they were published but rather the best books I read in the last year. These are the ones that captivated me, and I think all of these should be on your “must read” list for 2022.
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As always, my list is pretty eclectic…it’s a blend of fiction and non-fiction, and a combination of books I read while traveling, books relating to destinations that I’ve visited or cultures I want to explore, and history that helps me understand the world better.
Just a note before we dive in—these are affiliate links so I may make a small commission from any Amazon sales that come through clicks (which I greatly appreciate, and at no extra cost to you). You can read more about this here. All opinions are, as always, completely my own!
My Best Non-Fiction Books From 2021
This area is what’s really benefited from my extra reading time, because I need at least 30 minutes in a stretch to sink into non-fiction. In the past I could only manage this on a Sunday, so with being home more I’ve been able to devour a lot more books.
Personally I prefer to read my non-fiction books in paperback or hardback because they often include a lot of footnotes and callouts, while fiction is almost always a Kindle.
Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall
This book was so interesting! I’m a huge history fan and map nerd, and I love to understand *why* things happen. ‘Prisoners of Geography‘ is a remarkably easy and fun read despite its lofty premise, and digs into how geographic factors such as natural barriers, natural resources, climate, and more have affected not only nations’ histories but shape how we experience the world today.
Why is Russia so obsessed with the plains of Ukraine and into eastern Europe? Why do massive border-sharing China and India not have millennia of wars? How have Africa’s geography and climate impacted the continent’s ability to develop trade and dominance on the world stage?
Marshall does an amazing job making sense of—and simply, clearly communicating—highly complex and interwoven factors that shape our modern world.
The Great Influenza by John M. Barry
When I started reading this book a year into all the coronavirus insanity, I questioned the wisdom of that choice a bit, whether I really wanted to immerse myself in this topic. But I found this book absolutely fascinating, bizarrely prescient, so educational, and crafted into a really gripping narrative. Though written about five years ago, it provides a healthy perspective compared to our current experience.
I kind of assumed it would jump right into tracking the virus’s spread and effect, but the book actually lays its groundwork by both giving some background on how viruses work (incredibly helpful) and spending time examining the nascent development of the American medical community at this time.
The key players in the American medical community (along with some international figures) help anchor the narrative of ‘The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History‘, including all the different ways that both political and scientific figures try to fight the virus or slow its spread (spoiler alert: none of it’s generally successful).
Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl
This one is my non-fiction outlier, a memoir rather than strong history-based. I’ve loved Reichl for years, ever since I got to have lunch with her while she was promoting my favorite of her books (the amazing ‘Garlic & Sapphires‘), which incidentally was while she was at Gourmet.
‘Save Me the Plums‘ chronicles her time at the iconic Gourmet magazine, which also coincided with the moment when restaurants truly became a part of American culture, when chefs became household names, and the farm-to-table restaurant trend rose and changed how we eat.
Her writing style is intimate, vulnerable, and witty, her anecdotes are larger-than-life, and I love a good behind the scenes look. But as always, what I fall for the most how she writes about food…her visceral descriptions, which make you feel like you’re swirling your fork across the plate and shoving a bite of epic food into your mouth. You’re right there with her.
Bodyguard of Lies by Anthony Cave Brown
The subtitle of this book is “the extraordinary true story of the clandestine war of deception that hid the secrets of D-Day from Hitler and sealed the Allied victory”. Which…wow, that’s a mouthful. I heard about this book on my beloved Hardcore History podcast, and slowly worked my way through it this summer (my only complaint is that it is LONG).
‘Bodyguard of Lies‘ tells the story of the Allied espionage (and Nazi counter-espionage) in WWII, and most of the details were only de-classified in the early 1970s. That in and of itself is crazy to me, because it means that a lot of things I read contradict what I’d learned from seminal WWII texts like “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, which was written earlier.
You really feel the weight of the decisions having to be made on ambiguous intel, extremely difficult calls to sacrifice people in the short-term to protect the long-term deceptions, and so much more…it’s hard to describe this book because the true stories are so fantastical. It kind of blows your mind. If you’re willing to take on something this lengthy (800+ pages), you won’t regret it.
The Tragedy & the Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama by Margaret Anne Barnes
The only reason I’d even *heard* of Phenix City was from living in Atlanta for over a decade, and having to frequently drive the couple hours down to Columbus, GA, for work. Phenix City sits on the other side of the river from Columbus, a small (under 40,000 inhabitants today), unassuming Alabama city I’d never given a thought to.
But WOW, who knew that this little city was a hotbed of gangster control, violence, and a fight for human rights?! One of my clients in Columbus recommended this book, and I’m so glad he did! This is one of those fascinating American history narratives that might otherwise have been lost.
‘The Tragedy and the Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama‘ gives some background on the town and the key players, fairly quickly moving from 1916 to the early 1950s. Then it gives a rich play-by-play of the events…bombings, burnings, beatings, impeachments, political corruption, intimidation, and the men and women who fought against it at great personal cost.
Barnes makes what could be dry historical account compelling, and I was caught up in the tension that permeates the account. Written in the late 1990s, she still received anonymous death threats while researching and writing it, over 40 years after everything happened (the Mob never forgets…).
Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham
I specifically researched various books about the Chernobyl disaster after watching the HBO miniseries on a plane (which…is NOT where I recommend watching it, bawling and anxious at 40,000 feet). I realized how little I really knew about the details, and honestly Russian history and culture is a knowledge gap for me as well.
After reading a number of reviews, I chose ‘Midnight in Chernobyl‘ which is subtitled “the untold story of the world’s greatest nuclear disaster”. It takes an investigative reporting approach to the storytelling, piecing together details from interviews, scientific articles, news stories, and more to try to peel back the propaganda and secrecy to really understand what happened.
The resulting book is “a chronicle of astonishing heroics and maddening incompetence”, a taut narrative that moves at a measured pace and revels in the details, following many different public and unknown figures over the course of the book. (It follows *many* different people because, well, spoiler, a lot of the people involved die before the story ends.) Definitely worth a read.
So there are my best non-fiction books I read in 2021, let’s move on to fiction! (Bartok says hi, and would you please feed him when you finish this chapter??)
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Best Fiction Books To Read This Year
As I’ve mentioned before, my fiction tastes tend toward romance and fantasy, and I usually devour it on my Kindle Paperwhite (my true life partner), on a plane or by a pool—I just want something fun!
So most of the books below fall into the romance genre, but with snappy and relate-able dialogue, great chemistry, and fully-fleshed characters that I fell in love with. The outlier is the first Kate Daniel’s book…while the series definitely has some romance in it, the first book doesn’t and the series itself is a masterpiece of fun fantasy world-building.
Headliners by Lucy Parker
You guys know I LOVE me some Lucy Parker! Her stories sparkle, dialog is fun, characters really pop but are still believable and relatable…not falling into that trap of being quirky and ridiculous. ‘Headliners‘ can be read as a standalone but I think benefits even more if you’ve read the earlier books in the series, which set up a bit of the backstory.
Special honorable mention to ‘Battle Royal‘, which she published in 2021 and is a fun and charming read (with food at the center, which I always appreciate).
Managed (VIP Book 2) by Kristen Callihan
I loved Callihan’s entire VIP series, following a tight-knit rock group who’s made it big. Despite their celebrity, she makes each character feel REAL…fun, raw, and imperfect.
‘Managed‘ focuses on Scottie, the group’s stoic, focused business manager, and I really loved the poking, snark, tension, and fun that Scottie and Sophie have. The entire series is worth a read, and I always recommend doing it in order, but if you’re going to dive in mid-way then this is (IMO) where you should start.
Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews
This one is a bit of a cheat since this series has been one of my absolute favorites for over a decade. But I *did* read it in 2021 (twice, in fact), so it definitely qualifies. And honestly I feel the need to sing its praises to help more people discover it.
‘Magic Bites‘ is set in Atlanta in the not-so-distant-future where magic and tech both vie for supremacy, and society has crashed and had to re-form in the new world situation. It does an amazing job building a unique and fun world blending fantasy ideas and characters with a dystopian (but not depressing) flair.
The heroine is totally kick-ass, the dialogue is zippy, and it features my #2 literary hero ever. Seriously, read it now!!
The Hitchhiker in Panama by Liz Alden
I’ve really enjoyed all of Liz Alden’s books this past year, because they are charming, grown-up, and full of fun characters and dialogue. There’s a travel wanderlust aspect that I love, and she gives you great behind-the-scenes glimpses of things like liveaboard sailing and being crew on a mega yacht. And best of all, they aren’t full of angsty drama that is pointless and childish.
‘The Hitchhiker in Panama‘ is the first in her “Love and Wanderlust” series, and I have a real soft spot for it. First off, where can I find ME an Eivind??? The Norwegian main love interest is just delightful and sweet. Plus you know by now that sailing is my catnip, so that as a setting definitely hooked me.
It’s a bit of a small world, and I ended up getting connected with Liz through her travel blog, and if you’re interested you can read my interview with her. We talk about long-term sailing life, being a digital nomad, our mutual love of romance novels, becoming a self-published author, and more.
So there you have it—the 10 best books in 2021 that I loved the most, was entertained by, or learned a lot from. I think you should have all of these on your list to read in 2022 and beyond!
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- What I Read at the Beach or Pool: My Summer Beach Reads
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- The Ultimate Happy Airplane Reading List: The Best Romance & Urban Fantasy
- Book Reco: The Vineyard at the End of the World
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