Posted: 12/6/2021 | December 6th, 2021
This year was a phenomenal reading year (one positive outcome of being stuck at home because of COVID). I managed to read a lot of books on a variety of subjects. Not all of them were winners but most were. As we wrap up the year (and start buying books for the holidays), I want to share some of this year’s favorites.
These books transported me to places when borders were shut, taught me history, myself, and made me rethink how I view the world.
And, with winter approaching, nothing beats snuggling inside with a warm cup of tea and a good book!
So, without further ado, here are the best books I read in 2021 (in no particular order):
1. Take More Vacations, by Scott Keyes
Travel expert Scott Keyes of Scott’s Cheap Flights explains how to score bargain airfare and improve your trips. This book is half practical tips and half travel philosophy. Keyes demystifies the entire process of how airfare pricing works, and his strategies for getting cheap flights will apply to you regardless of where you live.
2. Circe, by Madeline Miller
This novel follows the fictionalized life of the Greek goddess Circe. It is a well-written page-turner that spans Greek history. The author really brings Circe to life and creates a complex tale of becoming who you were always meant to be. I highly, highly recommend it! I couldn’t put it down once I picked it up.
3. The Expanse, by James S. A. Corey
This hit Amazon TV show is actually based on a book series. This nine part series follow humans (fractured in people living on Earth, Mars, and “The Belt”) in the near future after discovering an alien portal to systems around the universe. If you love sci-fi and are looking for a good series to pick up, pick this one up. It’s fantastic. The 9th and final book came out last month.
4. Land of Love and Drowning, by Tiphanie Yanique
Set in the US Virgin Islands and taking place over the course of the 20th century, this book uses the author’s own family history as well as island history to tell a story that features a lot of magical realism. It took me a few pages to get into it, but it really picks up after the first 20-30 pages. It’s a vibrant, layered read, and I can see why the author won so many awards for it.
5. Breath, by James Nestor
Breath is about how we breathe. The book argues that proper breathing can literally solve pretty much all of our health problems. While I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration, there’s still a lot of interesting and detailed information in here on how improving your breathing can reduce allergies (something I struggle with), increase energy, and reduce sleep apnea and snoring.
6. Less, by Andrew Sean Greer
This nonfiction, Pulitzer Prize–winning book follows writer Arthur Less on the eve of his fiftieth birthday. After finding out his lover is getting married, he says yes to number of business trips and workshops that sends him around the world. (So I guess it’s kind of a travel book in that way.) The more I read this book, the more I fell in love with it. And the twist at the end? Wow! You never see it coming!
7. What Doesn’t Kill You: A Life with Chronic Illness, by Tessa Miller
This book — part personal story, part resource for others with chronic illness — chronicles the author’s battle with IBD and Crohn’s. It’s smartly written, informative, and an eye-opening look at the gaping holes and systemic failures of the US medical system. Three in five Americans have some kind of chronic illness and this book goes a long way in helping to understand their struggies.
8. Deep Work, by Cal Newport
This book is about how to avoid distractions and produce deeper work. While repetitive in parts, the book does have a lot of great tips on how to do “deep work” and live a less distracted life. Whether you’re looking to improve your workflow, make more time for friends and family, or deepen your hobbies, this book has lots of tips and insights.
9. How I Built This, by Guy Raz
Guy Raz is famous for his podcast How I Built This where he interviews entrepreneurs about how they built their companies. Raz compiles all the lessons he’s learned from his podcast into a single book. It book follows the “hero’s journey” arc about stating and succeeding at starting a business. I normally hate business books but found this really insightful.
10. Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah
When Austin’s Snowpocalypse cut the power, I picked up this book by Trevor Noah about his life in South Africa and ended up reading the entire thing in one day. I found it insightful and educational to read about growing up as apartheid was ending. It gave me a lot of perspective on growing up in South Africa and a deeper appreciation for Trevor Noah himself.
11. The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
At first, I couldn’t get into this book. I didn’t like the format or how he wrote it and I was thinking of putting it down. Then, suddenly, a day had passed and I was almost done with it. So the book grew on me! The main character, Balram, is an antihero who revels in his self-serving ways as he works to get out of his village in India to become a powerful man.
12. Scotland Beyond the Bagpipes, by Helen Ochyra
Ochyra is a UK travel writer who realized that, despite many visits to Scotland for work, she had never really seen the country. So, spured by the loss of her mother, she hops in a car and heads off to explore Scotland in depth to get a better sense of the country. This book is funny, easy to read, and full of insights into Scotland (a place I love immensely).
13. The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert
This tale of Alma, a woman living in the 1800s, was so captivating that I couldn’t put it down. It follows her life from birth to old age. The characters are complex, the story of finding one’s place in the world has a few good plot twists, and, obviously, it’s super well written. I loved it.
14. The Queen’s Gambit, by Walter Tevis
After falling in love with the Netflix miniseries (I watched it twice), I decided to pick up the book. It’s a quick and easy read. The show followed the book pretty closely, so if you watched the show, you know what happens. There’s not a lot of differences. But, again, if you liked it on the small screen, you’re also going to love the book.
15. The Yellow House, by Sarah Broom
This memoir traces Broom’s family history in New Orleans, far from Bourbon Street, diving into life in its poor parts and what it was like growing up Black in a city defined by race. She delves into her upbringing, and how Katerina changed not only NOLA but her and her family. It gave me a lot of insights into life on the Crescent City that you don’t pick up as a visitor.
16. L’Appart, by David Lebovitz
Lebovitz is a well-known travel writer who writes prolifically about Paris (and I had the pleasure of meeting while I lived there). In this humorously written, insightful book, he uses his apartment renovation to look at various aspects of French life. He’s like a Parisian Bill Bryson and is able to really peel back the layers of life in Paris.
17. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This is the story of Ifemelu, who moves back to Nigeria after studying in the United States. It follows her and her college boyfriend’s stories, shifting perspectives between them and between life in the US and in Nigeria. It was 600 pages of incredible prose and storytelling that highlights the challenges of moving to a new country, returning home, and trying to fit back into your old life. It’s incredible.
18. Mad Travelers, by David Seminera
Mad Travelers follows perpetual nomads — people who try to be the most traveled person in the world and hit every obscure place there is (aka “mad travelers”). The book goes into the psychology of what makes people want to travel the world forever. I enjoyed it a lot and it made me think of what drives me to travel so much (I wrote about that here).
19. In Every Mirror She’s Black, by Lola Akinmade Åkerström
Travel writer, photographer, and best-selling author Lola Akinmade Åkerström’s debut fiction novel, In Every Mirror She’s Black is an arresting read for anyone looking for insight into what it means to be a Black woman in today’s world. Told through the perspectives of three detailed and complex characters as they navigate a foreign country, In Every Mirror is fast-paced, richly nuanced, and accessible.
20. The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, by Michael Lewis
This book by Michael Lewis is about the early days of the pandemic. It’s not an indictment of Trump. It’s about the failures of the CDC, planning, and the inertia of bureaucracy. I learned a lot about our country’s past pandemic planning and why the CDC was so slow to take COVID seriously (when you learn why, you’re going to be very depressed).
21. Beyond Guilt Trips, by Dr. Anu Taranath
Traveling abroad can provide new perspective — but it can also be unsettling and confusing. It can be challenging or awkward to speak about racial and cultural differences, even though these differences might have fueled the desire to travel in the first place. Anu Taranath helps us unpack our baggage about who we are to help us become better travelers.
22. How to Avoid Climate Disaster, by Bill Gates
This book is about the complexity of moving to a carbon-neutral world. His solution isn’t groundbreaking (“we need the political will!”) but what I enjoyed was his detailed breakdown of just how interwoven carbon is into every industry. We focus a lot on air travel and cars but they actually aren’t the biggest challenges we face. The whole book was super interesting.
23. American War, by Omar El Akkad
Set at the end of the 21st century, this book imagines a future where the United States, overwhelmed by climate change, faces a second civil war as the South secedes again. It was a wonderful, captivating read that follows the protagonist through childhood into adulthood. It’s a gripping book that’s really about how hate and revenge damage not only us but those around us too.
24. Between Two Kingdoms, by Suleika Jaouad
Suleika Jaouad was your typical college graduate living in Paris (jealous) when her health started to decline. Heading back to the States, she learns she has a deadly bone marrow cancer. This memoir recounts her diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. It is a moving book that dissects pain, loss, anger, and acceptance. It was one of the most powerful books I read all year.
25. Think Again, by Adam Grant
This new book by Adam Grant is about how to re-evaluate your beliefs — and also how to talk to people who disagree with you. I felt it was very pertinent given where society is today. In an age where people battle it out on social media, this book really made me think about how I form opinions, change my mind, and interact with people.
This tells the tale of Alex Dumas, the father of famed writer Alexandre Dumas. Alex Dumas was the son of a French aristocrat and slave on what is now Haiti. When he was a teen, his father took him to France to live the life of a nobleman. When the Revolution came, he quickly gained fame due to his constant military successes. It was really interesting to learn about the racial equality that happened in revolutionary France and how Napoleon undid that. Buy it on Amazon | Buy it on Bookshop
27. Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi
I picked this book up thinking it was a travel book but it was actually a fiction book about a Ghanese family living in the US coming to terms with the death of a father who abandoned them. This beautifully written tale looks at issues of family, abandonment, and forgiveness. The vibrant prose will pull you in from the first line. It is an absolute marvel of a book and one of the best-written books I’ve read all year.
28. Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, by Laurence Bergreen
This book was it a detailed and fascinating history of Magellan’s round the world trip and the true risk and daring of it but also a look at the world in 1519. There’s a lot of information here about sailing, social hierarchy, colonialism, and politics. If you’re a history nerd, you’re going to love this book. The author throws in a lot of information but keeps the pace brisk.
29. Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It, by Charlamagne Tha God
Charlemagne tha God is a radio DJ / TV host I’ve heard about in passing over the years. This is his memoir about his upbringing in rural South Carolina and what he’s learned from being a jailed drug dealer as a kid to becoming a celebrity as an adult. I especially love his idea that there are no failures, only lessons, and his emphasis on putting in the work if you want to succeed.
30. BONUS: Ten Years a Nomad, by me
Of course, I’m gonna add my book! This is my memoir about my ten years backpacking the world as well as a treatise on my philosophy on travel. It follows the emotional journey of a trip around the world – from planning to being out there for the first time, to making friends to the emotions of coming home and everything in between. I talk about the reality of long term travel and the lessons that come from that lifestyle.
31. BONUS #2: How to Travel the World on $50 A Day, by me
My other book features all my best tips in one easy to follow format that you can take with you when you travel. It will help you become a master traveler and navigate the world. It’s like this blog but WAY more detailed, covering everything you need to know to plan a trip and travel the world with confidence.
Reading has been especially important this past year as many borders remained closed and the pandemic continued to ravage much of the world. During this challenging time, books helped me escape, stay calm and relaxed in a world going crazy, grow my business, and grow as a person too.
While the year definitely had its ups and downs, it was an excellent year for reading. That’s a fine silver lining if you ask me. Pick up one of these books and let them move you as much as they moved me.
P.S. – If you’re looking for some suggested reading, be sure to check out all my favorites on Bookshop. It’s not as cheap as Amazon but the money helps small, independent bookstores rather than Amazon. If you’re in the US and UK, buy from them! (If you only use Kindle, here’s the Amazon link.)
Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- SafetyWing (best for everyone)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional evacuation coverage)
Ready to Book Your Trip?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use when I travel. They are the best in class and you can’t go wrong using them on your trip.