Book review: Accelerated C# 2008 by Trey Nash

Time for another book review, and this time it’s a due to a recommendation from a reader who has this one, C# in Depth and Head First C#.

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Introduction and disclaimer

My normal book review disclaimer applies, but probably more so than ever before. Yes, Accelerated C# 2008 is a competitor to C# in Depth. They’re different in many ways, but many people would no doubt be in the target audience for both books. If you meet that criterion, please be aware that as the author of C# in Depth I can’t possibly be 100% objective when reviewing another C# book. That said, I’ll try to justify my opinions everywhere I can.

Target audience and content overview

Accelerated C# 2008 is designed to appeal to existing developers with experience in an OO language. As one of the Amazon reviews notes, you may struggle somewhat if you don’t have any .NET experience beforehand – while it should be possible to read it knowing only Java or C++, there are various times where a certain base level of knowledge is assumed and you’ll want to refer to MSDN for some background material. If you come at the book with no OO experience at all, I expect you’ll have a hard time. Chapter 4 does cover the basics of OO in .NET (classes, structs, methods, properties etc) this isn’t really a beginner’s book.

In terms of actual content covered, Accelerated C# 2008 falls somewhere between C# in Depth (almost purely language) and C# 3.0 in a Nutshell (language and then core libraries). It doesn’t attempt to cover all the core technologies (IO, reflection, security, interop etc are absent) but it goes into detail beyond the C# language when it comes to strings, exceptions, collections, threading and more. As well as purely factual information, there’s a lot of guidance as well, including a whole chapter entitled “In Search of C# Canonical Forms.”

General impressions

I’d like to make it clear to start with that I like the book. I have a number of criticisms, none of which I’m making up for the sake of being critical – but that in no way means it’s a bad book at all. It’s very unlikely that you know everything in here (I certainly didn’t) and the majority of the guidance is sound. The code examples are almost always self-contained (a big plus in my view) and Trey’s style is very readable. Where there are inaccuracies, they’re usually pretty harmless, and the large amount of accurate and insightful material makes up for them.

Just as I often compare Java to C# in my book, so Trey often compares C++ to C# in his. While my balance of C# to C++ knowledge is such that these comments aren’t particularly useful to me, I can see them being good for a newcomer to C# from a C++ background. I thought there might have been a few too many comparisons (I understood the point about STL and lambdas/LINQ the first time round…) but that’s just a minor niggle.

Where C# in Depth is primarily a “read from start to finish” book and C# 3.0 in a Nutshell is primarily a reference book (both can be used the other way, of course) Accelerated C# 2008 falls between the two. It actually achieves the best of both worlds to a large extent, which is an impressive feat. The ordering could be improved (more on this later on) but the general feeling is very good.

One quick word about the size of the book in terms of content: if you’re one of those people who judges the amount of useful content in a book on its page count, it’s worth noting that the font in this book is pretty small. I would guess that it packs about 25% more text per page than C# in Depth does, taking its “effective” page count from around 500 to 625. Also, the content is certainly meaty – you’re unlikely to find yourself skimming over loads of simple stuff trying to get to the good bits. Speaking of “getting to the good bits” let’s tackle my first significant gripe.

Material organisation

If you look at the tables of contents for Accelerated C# 2008 and Accelerated C# 2005, you’ll notice that the exact same chapter titles in the 2005 edition carry over in the same order in the 2008 edition. There are three extra chapters in the new edition, covering extension methods, lambda expressions and LINQ. That’s not to say that the content of the “duplicate” chapters is the same as before – C# 3.0 features are introduced in the appropriate place within existing chapters. In terms of ordering the chapters, I think it would be have been much more appropriate to keep the last chapter of the old edition – “In Search of C# Canonical Forms” – as the last chapter of the new edition. Apart from anything else, that would allow it to include hints and tips involving the new C# 3 features which are currently covered later. It really feels like a “wrapping up” chapter, and deserves to be last.

That’s not the only time that the ordering felt strange, however. Advanced topics (at least ones which feel advanced to me) are mixed in with fairly basic ones. For instance, in the chapter on exceptions, there’s a section about “exception neutrality” which includes details about constrained execution regions and critical finalizers. All interesting stuff – even though I wish there were more of a prominent warning saying, “This is costly to both performance and readability: only go to these lengths when you really, really need to.” However, this comes before a section about using try/finally blocks and the using statement to make sure that resources are cleaned up however a block is exited. I can’t imagine anyone who knows enough C# to take in the exception neutrality material also not knowing about try/finally or the using statement (or how to create your own custom exception class, which comes between these two topics).

Likewise the chapter which deals with collections, including generic ones, comes before the chapter on generics. If I were a reader who didn’t know generics already, I think I’d get very confused reading about ICollection<T> without knowing what the T meant. Now don’t get me wrong: ordering material so that you don’t get “circular references” is often hard if not impossible. I just think it could have been done better here.

Aiming too deep?

It’s not like me to criticise a book for being too deep, but I’m going to make an exception here. Every so often, I came away from a topic thinking that it would have been better covered a little bit more lightly. Sometimes this was because a running example became laborious and moved a long way from anything you were actually likely to want to do in real life. The sections on “borrowing from functional programming” and memoization/currying/anonymous recursion felt guilty of this. It’s not that they’re not interesting topics, but the examples picked didn’t quite work for me.

The other problem with going deep is that you really, really need to get things right – because your readers are less likely to spot the mistakes. I’ll give three examples here:

  • Trey works hard on a number of occasions to avoid boxing, and points it out each time. Without any experience in performance tuning, you’d be forgiven for thinking that boxing is the primary cause of poor performance in .NET applications based on this book. While I agree that it’s something to be avoided where it’s possible to do so without bending the design out of shape, it doesn’t deserve to be laboured as much as it is here. In particular, Trey gives an example of a complex number struct and how he’s written appropriate overloads etc to avoid boxing. Unfortunately, to calculate the magnitude of the complex number (used to implement IComparable in a manner which violates the contract, but that’s another matter) he uses Math.Pow(real, 2) + Math.Pow(img, 2). Using a quick and dirty benchmark, I found that using real * real + img * img instead of Math.Pow made far, far more difference than whether or not the struct was boxed. (I happen to think it’s more readable code too, but never mind.) There was nothing wrong with avoiding the boxing, but in chasing the small performance gains, the big ones were missed.

  • In the chapter on threading, there are some demonstrations of lock-free programming (before describing locking, somewhat oddly – and without describing the volatile modifier). Now, personally I’d want to discourage people from attempting lock-free programming at all unless they’ve got a really good reason (with evidence!) to support that decision – but if you’re going to do it at all, you need to be hugely careful. One of the examples basically has a load of threads starting and stopping, updating a counter (correctly) using Interlocked.Increment/Decrement. Another thread monitors the count and periodically reports it – but unfortunately it uses this statement to do it:

    threadCount = Interlocked.Exchange(ref numberThreads, numberThreads);

    The explanation states: “Since the Interlocked class doesn’t provide a method to simply read an Int32 value in an atomic operation, all I’m doing is swapping the numberThreads variable’s value with its own value, and, as a side effect, the Interlocked.Exchange method returns to me the value that was in the slot.” Well, not quite. It’s actually swapping the numberThreads variable’s value with a value evaluated at some point before the method call. If you rewrite the code like this, it becomes more obviously wrong:

    int tmp = numberThreads;
    Thread.Sleep(1000); // What could possibly happen during this time, I wonder?
    threadCount = Interlocked.Exchange(ref numberThreads, tmp);

    The call to Thread.Sleep is there to make it clear that numberThreads can very easily change between the initial read and the call to Interlocked.Exchange. The correct fix to the code is to use something like this:

    threadCount = Interlocked.CompareExchange(ref numberThreads, 0, 0);

    That sets numberThreads atomically to the value 0 if (and only if) its value is already 0 – in other words, it will never actually change the value, just report it. Now, I’ve laboured the explanation of why the code is wrong because it’s fairly subtle. Obvious errors in books are relatively harmless – subtle ones are much more worrying.

  • As a final example for this section, let’s look at iterator blocks. Did you know that any parameters passed to methods implemented using iterator blocks become public fields in the generated class? I certainly didn’t. Trey pointed out that this meant they could easily be changed with reflection, and that could be dangerous. (After looking with reflector, it appears that local variables within the iterator block are also turned into public fields.) Now, leaving aside the fact that this is hugely unlikely to actually bite anyone (I’d be frankly amazed to see it as a problem in the wild) the suggested fix is very odd.

    The example Trey gives is where originally a Boolean parameter is passed into the method, and used in two places. Oh no! The value of the field can be changed between those two uses, which could lead to problems! True. The supposed fix is to wrap the Boolean value in an immutable struct ImmutableBool, and pass that in instead. Now, why would that be any better? Certainly you can’t change the value within the struct – but you can easily change the field‘s value to be a completely different instance of ImmutableBool. Indeed, the breakage would involve exactly the same code, just changing the type of the value. The other train of thought which suggests that this approach would fail is that bool is already immutable, so it can’t be the mutability of the type of the field that causes problems. I’m sure there are much more useful things that Trey could have said in the two and a half pages he spent describing a broken fix to an unimportant problem.

Sorry, that was getting ranty for a bit… but I hope you understand why. Before concluding this review, let’s look at one chapter which is somewhat different to the rest, and which I’ve mentioned before:

In Search of C# Canonical Forms (aka “Design and Implementation Guidelines” :)

I’d been looking forward to this part of the book. I’m always interested in seeing what other people think the most important aspects of class design are. The book doesn’t go into much detail about abstract orientation (in this chapter, anyway – there’s plenty scattered through the book) but concentrates on core interfaces you might implement, etc. That’s fine. I’m still waiting for a C# book to be written to truly be on a par with Effective Java (I have the second edition waiting to be read at work…) but I wasn’t expecting it all to be here. So, was this chapter worth the wait?

Somewhat. I was very glad to see that the first point around reference types was “Default to sealed classes” – I couldn’t agree more, and the arguments were well articulated. Many other guidelines were either entirely reasonable or at least I could go either way on. There were a few where I either disagreed or at least would have put things differently:

  • Implementing cloning with copy constructors: one point about cloning which wasn’t mentioned is that (to quote MSDN) “The resulting clone must be of the same type as or a compatible type to the original instance.” The suggested implementation of Clone in the book is to use copy constructors. This means that every subclass must override Clone to call its own copy constructor, otherwise the instance returned will be of the wrong type. MemberwiseClone always creates an instance of the same type. Yes, it means the constructor isn’t called – but frankly the example given (performing a database lookup in the constructor) is a pretty dodgy cloning scenario in the first place, in my view. If I create a clone and it doesn’t contain the same data as the original, there’s something wrong. Having said that, the caveats Trey gives around MemberwiseClone are all valid in and of themselves – we just disagree about their importance. The advice to not actually implement ICloneable in the first place is also present (and well explained).
  • Implementing IDisposable: Okay, so this is a tough topic, but I was slightly disappointed to see the recommendation that “it’s wise for any objects that implement the IDisposable interface to also implement a finalizer […]” Now admittedly on the same page there’s the statement that “In reality, it’s rare that you’ll ever need to write a finalizer” but the contradiction isn’t adequately resolved. A lot of people have trouble understanding this topic, so it would have been nice to see really crisp advice here. My 20 second version of it is: “Only implement a finalizer if you’re holding on to resources which won’t be cleaned up by their own finalizers.” That actually cuts out almost everything, unless you’ve got an IntPtr to a native handle (in which case, use SafeHandle instead).
    • As a side note, Trey repeatedly claims that “finalizers aren’t destructors” which irks me somewhat as the C# spec (the MS version, anyway) uses the word “destructor” exclusively – a destructor is the way you implement a .NET finalizer in C#. It would be fine to say “destructors in C# aren’t deterministic, unlike destructors in C++” but I think it’s worth acknowledging that the word has a valid meaning in the context of C#. Anyway…
  • Implementing equality comparisons: while this was largely okay, I was disappointed to see that there wasn’t much discussion of inheritance and how it breaks equality comparisons in a hard-to-fix way. There’s some mention of inheritance, but it doesn’t tackle the issue I think is thorniest: If I’m asking one square whether it’s equal to another square, is it enough to just check for everything I know about squares (e.g. size and position)? What about if one of the squares is actually a coloured square – it has more information than a “basic” square. It’s very easy to end up with implementations which break reflexivity, simply because the question isn’t well-defined. You effectively need to be asking “are these two objects equal in <this> particular aspect” – but you don’t get to specify the aspect. This is an example where I remember Effective Java (first edition) giving a really thorough explanation of the pitfalls and potential implementations. The coverage in Accelerated C# 2008 is far from bad – it just doesn’t meet the gold standard. Arguably it’s unfair to ask another book to compete at that level, when it’s trying to do so much else as well.
  • Ordering: I mentioned earlier on that the complex number class used for a boxing example failed to implement comparisons appropriately. Unfortunately it’s used as the example specifically for “how to implement IComparable and IComparable<T>” as well. To avoid going into too much detail, if you have two instances x and y such that x != y but x.Magnitude == y.Magnitude, you’ll find x.CompareTo(y) == y.CompareTo(x) (but with a non-zero result in both cases). What’s needed here is a completely different example – one with a more obvious ordering.
  • Value types and immutability: Okay, so the last bullet on the value types checklist is “Should this struct be immutable? […] Values are excellent candidates to be immutable types” but this comes after “Need to boxed instances of value? Implement an interface to do so […]” No! Just say no to mutable value types to start with! Mutable value types are bad, bad, bad, and should be avoided like the plague. There are a very few situations where it may be appropriate, but to my mind any advice checklist for implementing structs should make two basic points:
    • Are you sure you really wanted a struct in the first place? (They’re rarely the right choice.)
    • Please make it immutable! Pretty please with a cherry on top? Every time a struct is mutated, a cute kitten dies. Do you really want to be responsible for that?

Conclusion

At the risk – nay, certainty – of repeating myself, I’m going to say that I like the book despite the (sometimes subjective) flaws pointed out above. As Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, “The evil men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.” So it is with book reviews – it’s a lot easier to give specific examples of problems than it is to report successes – but the book does succeed, for the most part. Perhaps the root of almost all my reservations is that it tries to do too much – I’m not sure whether it’s possible to go into that much detail and cater for those with little or no previous C# experience (even with Java/C++) and keep to a relatively slim volume. It was a very lofty goal, and Trey has done very well to accomplish what he has. I would be interested to read a book by him (and hey, potentially even collaborate on it) which is solely on well-designed classes and libraries.

In short, I recommend Accelerated C# 2008, with a few reservations. Hopefully you can judge for yourself whether my reservations would bother you or not. I think overall I slightly prefer C# 3.0 in a Nutshell, but the two books are fairly different.

Reaction

I sent this to Trey before publishing it, as is my custom. He responded to all my points extremely graciously. I’m not sure yet whether I can post the responses themselves – stay tuned for the possibility, at least. My one problem with reviewing books is that I end up in contact with so many other authors who I’d like to work with some day, and that number has just increased again…