Shogun - James Clavel. 'Epic' is the best word I can use to describe this historical fiction. I first read it in 2009 and have reread all 1100 pages multiple times since. The first English pilot to reach the Japans discovers a culture that, while strange, is in many ways far more advanced than his own. The fictional Lord Toranaga is based on the historical Tokugawa Ieyasu, a brilliant strategist who founded a dynasty that lasted 268 years. The book is full of the real Tokugawa's writings, which can be very profound. For anyone familiar with the 'marshmallow test' for determining how well 5 year olds will do later in life, Tokugawa had it figured out 370 years before Walter Mischel:
"The strong manly ones in life are those who understand the meaning of the word patience. Patience means restraining one's inclinations. There are seven emotions: joy, anger, anxiety, adoration, grief, fear, and hate, and if a man does not give way to these he can be called patient. I am not as strong as I might be, but I have long known and practiced patience. And if my descendants wish to be as I am, they must study patience."
Lieutenant Hornblower - C.S. Forrester. Shogun taught me that reading historical fiction made regular history much more interesting, which made me seek out more historical fiction. This is a series of 12 books covering the career of a British navel man during the Napoleonic Wars. Gene Roddenberry based the character of Jean Luc Picard on its protagonist. My recommendation won't be as strong as these gentlemen though: "I find Hornblower admirable." -Winston Churchill, and "I recommend Forester to everyone literate I know," -Ernest Hemingway
The Sparrow - Mary Doria Russell. I found this through another Hacker News book thread. I enjoyed it so much that after reading the sequel I immediately went back and read the first book again. SETI discovers music coming from Alpha Centauri and the Jesuits are the first to launch an expedition to investigate. It's science fiction, but unlike most science fiction, the story is more about the characters and their relationships than it is about exploring the consequences of an interesting premise.
Call Me Ted - Ted Turner. At the peak (before the AOL-Time Warner merger debacle) Ted Turner was worth $10 Billion. His autobiography is a great look into the sort of exceptional personality that creates that kind of exceptional result. Everything from growing up in the south and almost being lynched in school when someone started a rumor that he'd badmouthed General Robert E. Lee, to transforming his dad's billboard company several times until it was a media empire with TV channels like CNN, TNT, and Cartoon Network. Here's a great excerpt from a section written by a friend of his:
"And you know what I’m going to do next after I have the fourth network?” I said, “No, Ted, what’s that?” “I’m going to run for president and be elected.” Now I thought to myself, “This guy is absolutely nuts— and I’ve just agreed to lend him all this money!” I said to Ted, “Oh, Ted, don’t tell anybody else about that, okay?” And he said, “Cuz, your trouble is you don’t understand the power of television. Let me show you.” He pulled a little book of matches out of his desk drawer and he said, “Okay, it’s Saturday morning at 7: 30 and it’s Captain Teddy’s Kiddy Hour, and I come on television and I say, ‘Hey kids, today we’re going to play a game and it’s going to be so much fun. Now, don’t tell Mommy and Daddy, this is our secret between Captain Teddy and you. Now, everybody go get some matches. See Captain Teddy’s matches? Go get some just like this.’” Then he goes over to his window he says, “All right kids, everybody got your match? Go to the window and strike your match and light the curtain or the drape,” at which point he struck his match right near the old cheesecloth thing he had hanging in front of his window and then he flung the window open and he said to me, “At that point, I’d look out over Atlanta and watch it burn.” It was an incredible performance."
If you liked this, check out Patrick O'Brian's "Master and Commmander" series - it's the cream of the crop for this sort of historical fiction (or any sort, really).
Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00422LERA/?tag=dedasys-20
I only read the first of the O'Brian books, but Cochrane's life was full of fascinating episodes, and I highly recommend that biography of him.