Another Webmail service:

I like the fact that there are so many implementations of email, as companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook all trying to rethink email and how we communicate. Emailing has always been important, and it’s interesting how these companies try to make it easier and more intuitive for us. from Microsoft is yet another implementation of the staple of our internet activities. It’s a clear move away from the negatively-perceived Hotmail brand which, like Yahoo Mail, seems to have lost its sheen of innocence simply by being around for too long. takes Gmail’s threaded conversation view, mixed it with the new Metro look to come up with a visually different mail client. Like a squarish and less busy Gmail interface. Let’s see how long this lasts, but do look like a better bet than Yahoo’s Ymail rebranding effort. So go ahead and get yourself some prime email real estate before the crowds come in.

I must say, however, that the one company that really changed the game for email is Google with Gmail. From the non-prank launch date of 1GB storage space for email when everyone else is offering  a supremely miserly 4MB, to really the game-changing layout of a threaded-conversation view for email, Gmail is in my opinion still the front runner in terms of clear innovation.

Review of Herzog, by Saul Bellow

This isn’t an easy book to read, and it isn’t easy to write about. This is usually the sort of book that I stay away from in the best of days, as it didn’t exactly promise to be an exciting ride. The subject matter is dire like heck. But its reputation as one of the best books ever written precedes it. When the opportunity presented itself I thought it too good a deal to pass up, so I may as well learn what the fuss is about.

The story revolves around one Moses E Herzog, who at the point of the story has come out from his second marriage. The divorce ended badly, and his now ex-wife, Madeleine, shacked up with his supposedly best buddy Valentine, and he’s pissed. Also, amidst this emotional turmoil he’s suddenly consumed with remorse over the fact that his second child Junie will be growing up without him. All this culminates in a scene where he attempts to confront Maddy when he learned that Junie was apparently mistreated during an argument with Valentine. The manner of his attempted confrontation and subsequent fallout from that forms the climax of the novel.

The unique component of this novel is Herzog’s imaginary letter writing – missives he composes to people living or dead covering all manner of things, from his emotions to politics, all revolving around his crumbling life. Sort of the novel’s way of revealing Herzog’s character growth.

So it’s a botched marriage by a has-been, and a plot to regain his self-esteem and child. What’s so hard about that? The thing is Bellow’s writing is quite precise when it comes to the emotions. The thoughts that run through his mind, especially during the first quarter of the novel, are raw emotions, complete with self-rationalization of what has happened. Anger at Madeleine and how he felt he was unfairly treated in the lead-up to the divorce were quite believable. There were parts in the prose where I thought Herzog described what I personally felt during various stages of disharmony in my own marriage. I’m still married, and nothing in the story even closely reflected what happened in my own life, so no, this didn’t feel autobiographical. But there are times when husband and wife are fighting (as all marriages will do) thoughts of who’s right and wrong cannot be suppressed, and I felt Bellow captured that accurately. Not that that’s very surprising, considering that Bellow himself divorced his second wife, who had an affair with Bellow’s long-time friend.

So really the resonance I felt early in the book carried me along. The story plodded in places, and the writing, while excellent, tended to ramble. Still, this wasn’t utter boredom ala Bridesheads Revisited, and for that I was thankful.

This is one book that I will probably revisit later on, which is more than I can say for the majority of the books I read, good or bad.

Review of Battle Royale, by Koushun Takami & Masayuki Taguchi

I learned about Battle Royale many years ago, but was in a sense put off by the premise of having schoolchildren kidnapped and isolated on an island somewhere, and forced to kill each other to survive. Sounded interesting, but didn’t really like the idea of bloodbaths with children.

A quick exchange elsewhere in a book forum made me turn my eye on the work again, and decided I will take the plunge after all, although I cheated in a sense. Instead of turning to the novel, I turned to the manga adaptation. I was intrigued, and it was literally a quick series of taps away on my iPad.

The story is set in an alternative timeline where a totalitarian regime gripped Japan. As a means to control the population, and as an outlet of entertainment, the military conceived what is known as the Program, where every season a group of 42 kids are kidnapped at random, placed in an island, and whatever, I said it already at the top. And it’s broadcasted nationally on a state-sponsored TV channel. It’s kinda reminds me of the gladiator battles in ancient Rome – violent spectator sport.

The story follows the current season’s group of kids, and we watch as the dynamic of the different individuals play out in a violent fashion. The violence you’d expect are present, but what surprised me is the detailed backgrounds for some of the kids, and you get a sense of their motivation when faced with such odds and situation. There’s a kid though whose idealism started to grate after the first 20 pages, The word tinderbox was playing on my mind as the story developed, especially in scenes where groups of students who’ve taken to an alliance, and that was well done.The diverse cast and the genuinely different outlooks that each of the characters brought to the table showed the many facets of the human condition, not just in the immediacy of the situation but a reflection of the totalitarian society as a whole. Fight the system and face the potential consequences in the face of overwhelming odds, or fly high and reap the rewards of conforming and playing to the rules of the game? Not a completely mindless bloodbath, this.

Overall it was enjoyable.

There’s this series of books by Suzanne Collins called the Hunger Games which is apparently quite popular nowadays. I don’t know much about it, but the plot involves young children being isolated and they have to fight each other to survive. And apparently Collins denies ever knowing about the Battle Royale until after she submitted her manuscript. Uh.

Sherlock, the new-ish BBC TV Series

Just watched the first season of Sherlock (all of 3 episodes, albeit they are 1.5 hours long each).

As a fan, I’m always wary of remakes or retcons, and the most visible recent effort is the Downey Jr/Guy Ritchie movies. I have to say I was not impressed.

However, Sherlock, the 2010 TV series from BBC was not what I expected at all. In that it was actually good. Hah.

Sherlock is set in modern day London, and our eponymous hero is a 30-something, blackberry-toting consulting detective, and trusty Watson is a medical doctor/soldier most recently returned from Afghanistan. Holmes is characteristically arrogant, acerbic but technically more savvy – often doing searches on his mobile while analysing the crime scenes. John is loyal and trusty, able companion, as he should be.

The stories has its roots in the canonical stories from Doyle, but of course the writers put twists and mashes things up. Those familiar with the original stories, though, will find plenty of references and cheeky little nods to the original material. There are also fine touches which highlight the contrast of the solving cases in the 1890s with the modern era. So if you’ve always wondered how Holmes would solve a case in the world of instantaneous communications, camera phones and wildly liberal social norms, instead of telegrams and gender stereotypes, your prayers have been answered.

The main problem I have with the show is somehow making me believe Sherlock has all the understanding of the criminal world, be able to establish a
network of contacts among the urban homeless, on-the-fly access to medical labs/mortuaries, able to hold up in a fight, have innate understanding of the human condition, all while being what appears to be a mere 30-something year old man, seems a little bit of stretch.

Putting that aside, however, I find the stories fascinating, the acting well done (mostly), and funny. Way better than Downey Jr.

Conclusion: Watch it.

Trivia: I was reading up on the upcoming The Hobbit, and found that the actor who plays Watson here is the Bilbo Baggins (lead!), and Holmes is Smaug. What a coincidence.

Review of Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh

My word, this book is dull. I had high hopes for this one, seeing that it appears in so many best-of lists. Even a Jeremy Irons performance on the audiobook (who was pretty awesome, I must say) could not detract from the extremely plodding storyline.

In summary, there’s this chap, Charles Ryder, who whilst studying in Oxford, befriended Sebastian Flyte, and then spends the novel basking in his friendship with Sebastian, meeting Sebastian’s rich, upperclass and staunchly Roman Catholic family and the goings in and out of the Flyte family mansion, Brideshead. The novel recounts Charles life as it revolves around Sebastian’s family, a story of reflection on family ties, expectations, religion and memories. In fact, the whole book is a retrospection of Ryder’s earlier life, as the novel starts with him, a middle-aged military man who in the course of his duties with his tour came across Brideshead almost inadvertently.

The writing is crisp, and the dialogue can be pretty funny in parts. The best part I have to say is the dry wit of Charles’s father, who spends some effort in tormenting Charles when he returns home to stay with father when he exhausted his funds during his study break.

Of course I’m simplifying the novel. There are parts of the novel that are complex, the relationships that are explored are complex, the sentimentality that’s evident throughout the book and the motivations of the characters, particularly between Charles and Sebastian’s sister Julia, are complex. But the story doesn’t move me in a way that generates excitement or urgency. This reminds me of a sequence in Robin Hobbs’s Farseer Trilogy, where in the second book, Royal Assassin, the bloody book seemed to roll along *but nothing bloody hell happens*!

(There, try to find another review that compares Waugh with a fantasy trilogy!)

If I’m pressed to find something to say about the book that’s intriguing, it’s the ambiguity in the exact nature of the relations between the main characters, Charles and Sebastian. This isn’t something that I considered while reading the book – in fact this because interesting after I was looking at reviews of the novels after I finished it. There were some odd (misplaced, I thought) passages where I raised an eyebrow, but nothing that explicitly said they were more than platonic. There was a scene where Charles was spending the summer in Brideshead with Sebastian, but their frolicking involved some stage of undress. At one point Sebastian calls out to Cordelia, his younger sister, to refrain from entering the area of the house where they were apparently lazing about without their shirts on. Like I said, I did not think much about this during the reading, but I was surprised and fascinated that this was so much in the front and centre in discussions of the book.

I considered for a time whether knowing if they really were physically getting it on affected my feelings about the book, and I decided in the end that this does not change anything at all. The book was still dull, the story did not burst forth in new understanding for me. The physical relationship between them, even if it were true, evidently wasn’t something Waugh wanted to dwell on, since Sebastian pretty much all but disappears from the story somewhere in the middle of the novel, and flitting in and out as Charles began to be described and defined by his relationship with first his wife, then with Julia.

Here’s another perspective from an Asian reader – the name Evelyn normally has been more associated with the fairer sex for the longest time. I’ve heard of Waugh for a long time, of course, but I’ve only within the last few years realized that Waugh was actually a man. I was just watching an episode of Downton Abbey where the love interest of the eldest daughter of the patriarch in the drama is named Evelyn, and I thought ‘how very English this name is’.