Book reviews – what do you look for?

I’ve just started writing the book review for “Pro LINQ – Language Integrated Query in C# 2008″ and I wondered what people look for in a review. I’ve talked before about who is in the best position to write a review – but this is slightly different. In particular, what sort of balance do you want between totally factual aspects (what’s covered, the kinds of mistakes I found) and pretty subjective aspects (the writing style, quality of advice given)? Is a long and detailed review useful, or are you likely to just skip to the conclusion anyway?

I guess it’s worth answering my own question, partly in the hope that someone will write this kind of review for C# in Depth. (There are plenty of reviews, but not many in significant detail.) Here’s what I like to see:

  • A mixture of subjective opinions and objective facts
  • An example or two of the kind of technical errors found, and a rough idea of how often such errors occur
  • Who the book is aimed at, and more subjectively who it wouldn’t be useful for
  • A brief summary of what’s covered – and what’s not covered, if that’s relevant
  • A feeling of how well structured/ordered the book is – does it lead the reader through the technology, or jump around?
  • An idea of the author’s style – formal or informal, reference or tutorial, etc
  • Which aspects of that style irked the reader, and which worked well
  • Exampes of all of this! It’s one thing to say that a style annoys you – it’s another to give an example which will let the review’s reader judge for themselves.
  • How the author could improve, and their existing strengths
  • A final gut feeling of how much you like the book, despite/because of the above

Not all of these are suitable for all books, and I wouldn’t like to say that my own reviews have included all of them so far, but I think that’s what I’d appreciate reading. That suggests a fairly comprehensive review, of course – which is just what I’m after when making a reading decision.

I’d love to know what you think – it won’t be in time to affect the review I’m writing now, of course, but I’ll try to take comments into account for future reviews.

3 thoughts on “Book reviews – what do you look for?”

  1. Hi Jon,

    I’ve read your book (very impressed), and followed your blog for quite some time, and while I am not in any way qualified to speak on the subject, I thought I’d offer my opinion – feel free to ridicule it. :)

    I am one of those wannabe-developers that know how to write a basic program; I certainly turn to Google/MSDN/forums and other online sources when I can’t remember the specifics of an API or a technology. Online tutorials and articles usually push me in the right direction, but when I turn to books, it is because I want to really LEARN something, and make it stick. I also think that writing style has a lot to do with it; As a non-native-english speaker (reader) I prefer accessible use of language to dry, overly technical language, even though I can get through both. A little humor is fine, but there’s no need to launch your standup career in a programming book. And for those who rely on anologies, it would be nice if they thought them all the way through and didn’t have to swap them out for something more suitable by the middle of the book. ;)

    Also, I really like it when there is a logical progression in the book; Not a lot of “Well, we’re discussing A, which relies on B, but you’ll learn about that much later” is fine by me. This is one of the strengths with C# in Depth in my opinion – each chapter prepares you for the next (if not directly, at least indirectly), and I never felt completely lost or out of touch.

    Anyways, these are some random rambling about what I like in a book. So what do I like in a book review? Anything that can help me determine if I will like the book. :)

    I do agree strongly with your list of “likes” when it comes to book reviews, tho; As a mental midget compared to yourself and many others in the community, I can quickly see from your review if this book would be way over my head, or just “normally” over my head.

    For what little it is worth..!

    Rune :o)

  2. @Rune: Thanks for that. In particular, thanks for answering the question I probably *should* have asked directly: what do you like in a book?

    If I assume that the reason for reading a book review is to work out whether or not you’d like the book, then the most important thing is working out what matters to people within the book itself. If the review can clearly explain how well those aspects are executed in the book, it will do its job – regardless of length, etc.

    I totally agree that logical progression is an important part of a good book, and I’m glad that C# in Depth worked for you in that respect. It was avoiding that “here’s something I’ll explain later” which practically forced me to write about generics as the first chapter of “new” material. It was an uncomfortable choice because it’s the biggest and probably hardest topic in C# 2 – but comments like yours suggest it was the right decision :) It’s something I’ve mentioned in some reviews, but I’ll pay more attention to it for future ones.

    Thanks again for a detailed comment.
    Jon

  3. Hello.

    well, in my opinion that would be perfect and I do trust a lot in the “final gut feeling” when I know the work of the guy that is doing the review. I guess that what this means is that if you like the book, I’ll be adding it to my wish list…

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