Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Review: The Manga Guide to Databases
Authors: Mana Takahashi (Author) and Shoko Azuma (Illustrator) Format: Paperback, 224 pages Publisher: No Starch Press; Ill edition (January 28, 2009) ISBN-10: 1593271905 ISBN-13: 978-1593271909 Even though I specifically requested this book from No Starch for review, I never really expected it to be a...comic book. OK, that's not quite right, as purists will no doubt remind me. Manga isn't quite the same thing as an American comic book, but it's close enough from my point of view. I rather had expected the book to work along the lines of O'Reilly's Head First series, where technical topics are presented in text but with lots of "hyperactive" photos, graphics, arrows, and the like. The Databases book is presented as a straight manga publication and was originally published as part of a Manga Guide series in Japan in 2004. To clarify my perceptions, I actually emailed Bill Pollock at No Starch to get a clearer understanding of how this book and book series is supposed to work. Once Bill straightened me out, I was ready to proceed. Like any other manga, this one tells a story, and the story has an underlying theme. Historically, "children's" entertainment in Japan has carried a moral or ethical message, with the main characters sometimes appearing to give small lessons in cooperation, listening to parents, and so on. This manga's message isn't a moral one so much as an educational one. The underlying message is what databases are, how they're designed and how they work. The book addresses the reader who has never been exposed to any information about databases before. In fact, the first chapter is "What is a Database?" Poor Princess Ruruna has quite a problem, you see. Her parents, the King and Queen, are away and have left her in charge of the kingdom's massive fruit selling business. Unfortunately, the system she's using to keep track of her data is woefully inadequate to the task. Enter Tico the Database Fairy. I know it sounds silly, at least the way I'm describing it, but that's how the story opens. Pretty much up until page 10, the tale is presented in a typical manga fashion. The "problem" in terms of why Princess Ruruna and the Kingdom of Kod (I don't make these names up) need a database, starts to become apparent on page 11. The actual lesson in Chapter 1 starts on page 16, and that's where the book becomes more like I had originally expected. The main characters are used as "props" or "actors" to present the lesson of the chapter, in this case, what the basic problem is and how a database can be applied to create a solution. There's a short summary at the end of the chapter, then it's on to "What is a Relational Database". Subsequent chapters present a series of exercises after the main content with the answer key at the end, so this is very much a teaching book. But who does it teach and what can the students expect to learn? The intended audience (I checked, because it doesn't explicitly state this in the book's front matter) is likely high school and early university students (not exactly a shock, given the book's format). The book isn't a detailed text but rather a ground level introductory guide into the care and feeding of databases. You won't learn the SQL language, though there is a chapter in the book devoted to SQL. The idea of the book is to teach someone who knows nothing about what a database is and to give them a clue; a relatively detailed clue. The manga presentation will make it more appealing to a younger reader, or someone older who enjoys the novelty, to learn topics that can otherwise be pretty dry. If you are a "serious" student, you'll either think the book is frivolous or cute (or both), but will balk at being seen reading it in public. If you're the target audience, you won't give a rip and will probably brag about it. In fact, you're friends will probably think it's incredibly cool. Don't laugh (OK, laugh...there are funny bits in the book). This series is hugely popular in Japan, and No Starch is planning on marketing this as a series. While the books have already been authored in Japanese and been translated, No Starch is doing some re-translation and a technical review to verify that the content will really teach what it's supposed to. I mentioned the young and young-at-heart as far as the book's audience before, but it is suitable for the straight up adult who secretly likes manga and anime, and needs to get a primer on a topic that they may never have really understood before. Even people that manage databases for a living sometimes have a hard time explaining to the uninitiated exactly what a "relational database" is. Oh, this isn't just a textbook disguised as manga. Just for giggles, a bit of drama has been offered in the form of a romantic triangle. Not to worry. There's not too much "mushy stuff" there to get in the way of the book's main focus, but there is enough to keep it lightly entertaining. There is also a happy ending, which is to be expected. The book has a small appendix, which is unexpected, presenting "Frequently Used SQL Statements" as well as an index, so you can actually use it somewhat as a reference. Speaking of which, there is also a references page citing no less than nine sources, so the authors didn't whip this book up out of their heads. The primary author Mana Takahashi, is a university graduate and a technical writer on the subjects of Java, C, and XML (non-manga books), so she has the background to be authoritative. Back in the day, I used to collect comic books, though more in the vein of Spider-Man and Green Lantern, and when my kids were young, we watched the more popular anime series on Cartoon Network. I've even seen the occasional manga in my time, so I'm not completely unfamiliar with the art form. I've seen comic books, both mainstream and speciality publications, that have educated as well as entertained, but I must admit, I was taken a bit by surprise by this one. I don't know if it's really right for me, but I think it's right for the aforementioned young/young-at-heart audience, who has a need to understand the very basics of databases as concept and design. It won't do more than that, but it doesn't have to. There are plenty of books available that can carry on after this book's last page has been read. The book is written as a fantasy (Princesses, Kingdoms, Fairies), which isn't exactly what I'd go for, but it does the job it's supposed to do. Personally though, I would have preferred a few space ships, a couple of aliens, and some super-powered fight scenes. Even a couple of explosions would have been welcome. But that's just me, of course.