Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Most Entertaining Fiction Books of All Time

This is actually a list of fiction novels I've enjoyed the most. The books were evaluated solely on entertainment value, how pleasurable it was reading them. Here is my top ten:

10. The Firm - John Grisham

I consider the first of half this book to be a masterpiece of foreshadowing. This is the half where our new Harvard Grad and main protagonist gets the job offer of a lifetime from a large law firm. His new company encourages new employees to buy expensive houses, BMWs, and live a high cost life, all in an effort to keep them dependent on the firm. They give our hero an extremely challenging new project that turns out to be dummy projects to prepare them for their real clients who are less than honorable.

I liked the extreme attention to detail in the first half of the book. When the firm goes out of its way to hire fat unattractive secretaries to prevent distractions. Or how everything seems all fine and rosy on the surface, then when new associates get trapped by their extravagant lifestyle and mortgages, this is when the firm reveals its dark secret to them.

The second half of the book sort of deteriorated into a chaotic catch me if you can chase storyline which I didn't find as interesting. Also, I actually liked the ending of the movie better as I felt it was more realistic and had an ironic charm in itself. But other than that, the book is much more fun due to all the added details and nuances that are best described in text.

9. The Return of the King - J.R.R. Tolkien

The neat thing about this book is that the climactic finale where the ring is destroyed and Sauron is defeated actually occurs around two thirds of the way through the book. I remember reading this the first time and thinking to myself 'Huh? The fight's over but there are still dozens more pages left?' It turns out that the most enjoyable parts take place after the major conflicts ends. This is the part where our heroes, Frodo, Merry, Pippin head back to the Shire and retake it from some minor baddies. There are also bits and parts as to what happens to Gandalf, Aragorn (the king) and other former fellowship members after the great battle. Most books follow the formula of buildup to the climax, then ends abruptly with a good ending. Return of the King takes its time with a slow simmer, allowing the reader to savor the victory and celebrate with our heroes. It was cool (and realistic) to actually make the long trek back from Mordor, with some descriptions of how dangerous some of the places still were. This is what made it most fun to read.

8. Disclosure - Michael Crichton

By the way, I enjoyed the movie a lot, one of the rare film versions as good as the book. I also felt this book was more about corporate politics and high tech rather than being about sexual harassment. I could readily identify with Tom Sanders character as well as the rest of his team. I loved how he was able to turn around a difficult situation and salvage his reputation in the end. Lots of neat plot elements such as the mysterious "A Friend". All of the characters were interesting, in particular I liked the background description of the guy who used to be Tom Sanders best friend in the company, until the rigors of corporate life changed his friend until they grew distant to one another. Made me feel great about working in the computer industry. This is your classic page turner, extremely addictive and enjoyable.

7. The Fellowship of the Ring - J.R.R. Tolkien

I included this in my list because I was enamored with the concept of The Fellowship - a gathering of the best persons from each race, each with different motives and ideals, yet working together to fight a common enemy. Here we are treated to a suspensful hide and seek chapter where Frodo and the hobbits elude the dark riders. I also enjoyed the part where Frodo & co. got drunk in the bar, almost giving themselves away, and meeting Stryder aka Aragorn in the process.

For me, the best part of this book is the opening chapter where Bilbo throws this huge massive birthday party for himself. Lots of background descriptions of the different hobbits (in particular those nasty Sackville Baginnses), Gandalf having a frank talk to Bilbo about the ring, and Frodo getting ready to make his fateful trip out of the Shire. This was good because of the sharp contrast between the sheltered life of the Shire and the dark world outside its borders.

6. The Runaway Jury - John Grisham

This is Grisham's best work in my opinion. I sort of look at myself as a Nicholas Easter character (especially the opening line that mentions in jest his 'boyish good looks', hehehe). At first we don't know what his motives are, whether he is a tool of Big Tobacco, or an altruistic character with noble goals. There is also this mysterious woman who seems to work with Easter, yet we're not sure. We get clues though based on how Nicholas Easter subtly manipulates the jury, how he gains each jury members trust, and tries to get rid of the uncooperative members with some ruthlessness. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? We only find out in the end, an extremely satisfying finale.

Through the story, Grisham also educates us on the finer parts of jury selection, the process of how jury members are selected, what lawyers use to decide whether to accept or reject a potentional juror. There are also side stories of each juror that you will find interesting.

By the way, don't watch the movie version of this as it has almost no resemblance to the book and is crap.

5. Rising Sun - Michael Crichton

This book had a very interesting, inspired theme - how Japan is slowly taking over American business. In the late 80's and early 90's, many Japanese companies started investing heavily and acquiring numerous American companies. Think of Sony acquiring Columbia Pictures, and Japanese Auto Giants Toyota and Honda taking huge marketshare from traditional US auto companies. The hysteria was very real.

This is Crichton's most documentary-like book. We are treated to numerous chapters where the protagonists overhear conversations from businessmen (which is actually just a ploy to sneak in some of the documentary research in the book), talking about how Japanese companies are taking over the US. The two main protagonists are also very effective tools in explaining the facts to the readers. There is this master sensei character (Sean Connery for those who watched the movie), an American who has lived most of his life in Japan and is an expert in Japanese culture. It is through this character that we learn more about Japan's idiosyncracies and how it relates to the present time. The other character (Wesley Snipes in the movie) is your Dr. Watson, he is the link between the reader and the sensei. His sole purpose is to act dumb and ask questions to the sensei character so that we can learn more.

Since this was published, Japan went into a decade long recession, so much of this book will seem silly if read now. But I still consider this to extremely informative and fun to read at the same time. The most I've learned from a "fiction" book.

4. The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien

Ah, now we're getting to something. If you haven't read J.R.R.'s prequel to The Lord of the Rings, you've got to rush out and buy The Hobbit. The tone and ambiance is a stark contract to the dark and brooding nature of the LOTR books. Bilbo Braggins is one of the funniest and most endearing characters of all time (I laughed out loud in the part where he realizes he left his handkerchief back home). I kind of wish the Lord of the Rings series was as light-hearted as this book.

Bilbo Braggins is the unlikely hero. He started out as a total naive incompetent (How did he get Gandalf as a friend in the first place?). The dwarves have to bail him out everytime. But he ends up saving the day, rescuing the dwarves, leading them out of the dark forest, even fighting the dragon in the end. You will be amazed at the gradual, slow, complete turnaround from dope to hero. And you'll be rooting for Bilbo on every step.

3. The Godfather - Mario Puzo

This was the book where I felt the characters were alive. As if even when I stopped reading, they continued to live on because they were real. I marveled at how Michael Corleone went from a man who originally didn't want to have anything to do with his father's business to getting more and more entrenched in it. Mario Puzo revels in hyperbole and creating exagerrated, almost one-dimensional characters, but in a way that is totally believable and that works.

My favorite part was when Michael got exiled to Sicily. When he had to escape the country, living in relative peace with a new bride and friends, yet ended up getting dragged back to the troubles at home. Another neat part was when The Godfather arranged for a meeting with all the italian families and called for a truce. Actually there are so many good parts, so many neat side stories of the various characters that are linked to the Godfather one way or another.

The middle part gets boring. I'm referring to the Las Vegas storyline with Sonny's mistress, as well as a few of the young Godfather flashbacks. Although the young Godfather could be a book in itself as it describes how Vito Corleone started out and eventually became one of the most powerful men in New York.

The Godfather movies are ok, but are too short to enjoy all the finer details and nuances present in the book. So you've gotta read it to get the full enjoyment.

2. Contact - Carl Sagan

This was one of my favorite movies of all time, so I decided to read the book too, and was pleased at how much fun it was to read. Carl Sagan takes his own sweet time in telling the story, developing the characters, telling the story in his own unique style. It almost reads like a diary, dwelling on a certain event or plodding through different story arcs. Sometimes I felt like I was reading it as it happened in real time.

You have to be in the right frame of mind while reading this. Do not rush through, relax and read it slowly, you will feel as if you are a bystander watching the story unfold among familiar friends. If you have watched the movie, you will find the pace much slower, less dramatic, but more enjoyable. The story is a lot different too. For instance, in the movie only Jodie Foster makes the trip, while in the book she is accompanied by a whole crew. The ending is much better in the book too. In it, there is a neat epilogue which reveals the secret of the ancients. I loved, loved the epilogue.

Lots of geek stuff that even non techies will enjoy. My favorite part was when they were building the alien device based on the simplistic set of instructions that first laid the foundation building more and more complex sets until eventually you have the full system. There is also that feeling of uncertainty building a device that is inherently alien to the human race, something that may result in our own destruction. The book also contains some real good philosophical discussion on the nature of God and potential meanings of life. One of the best and most highly recommended.

1. Eaters of the Dead - Michael Crichton

This is my #1 most entertaining fiction book of all time. I never get tired of this Crichton classic. I probably read it three times already. I bet I would still enjoy reading this a fourth, fifth, or sixth time. Why is this book great? It's because the writing style is so cool, so different. It is written in the first person in journal form. You getto read the point of view of an observer trapped in a culture that is entirely foreign to him, so he describes everything in intricate detail with a mix of awe and disgust. But the observer gradually becames one of them and even ends up participating in their travels.

I learned later that this was Crichton's tribute to Beowulf and his take on Viking culture. Another well-researched book on his part, with just the right stuff to keep it as entertaining and educational as possible.

I consider the title 'Eaters of the Dead' to refer to a certain subplot in the story, that of this greatly feared race of half-neanderthal, half beast man-creature that are the ultimate savages. I cringed during the part where the observer and his compatriots discover the brutality left behind by the eaters of the dead. And the worst part is, they have to go to war against them! Can they actually win, will they survive at all.

It's like a fairy tale, historical narration, and horror novel, all rolled into one short but great book. And it just so happens to be the most fun book I've ever read.


roehl said...

rob, i've read 9 out of your 10 most entertaining books. the lone unread book, ironically sits at the top of your list, eaters of the dead, although i've watched the 13th warrior.

you have an amazing memory as i couldnt remember most of the details you've mentioned here. usually my learning from books is unconscious. i may not be aware exactly how a book has helped enrich my mind, but i know for sure that somewhere in there, some type of learning has been absorbed. and that's why i continue to read.

i was also surprised by your list as i thought it would consist of never-before-heard or hard-to-find books. you know, the usual type of books you like to buy.

rob said...

Roehl, I remember most of the good parts, somehow if parts of the book sticks out many years since I read it, that's how I know it's good. Also I tried to rank the books based on pure entertainment value, as in solely how fun it was to read.