Mandarin Chinese 1 -- Learning through Conversation by Kang Yuhua and Lai Siping
Want to learn Mandarin? Use this book and the follow-on volume. I recommend reading once through this book reading only the pinyin (roman letters), once you have a handle on the pinyin, then re-read the book paying attention to the jiantizi (simplified characters).
Since the beginning of this year, I've been trying to learn Chinese. And I can unequivocably say now that learning Chinese is certainly trying. Largely because many of the tools available are extremely inefficient.
For example, take a common Chinese dictionary, like Harper Collins' Pocket Chinese Dictionary. To look up a Chinese word, you have to identify the index radical, i.e. the "important" part of the ideogram (this dictionary has an index of 182 radicals) from the other radicals in the ideogram, and then count the remaining strokes in the ideogram. This radical + stroke count allows you to look up the pronunciation of the ideogram. Now we're almost done, Chinese has lots of exact homonyms, so now you have to look through the page(s) of words that start with your ideogram.
Sounds like a lot of work, eh? ;) I thought about trying to index the CEDICT Chinese to English dictionary using the order of strokes, but as with all natural languages I know, they are not uniform in the application of rules, so automatic parsing from ideogram to order of strokes is not straightforward. In reading up on UNIHAN (unicode for chinese) and CEDICT, I came across the UNIHAN database field descriptors, one of which was something called the Four Corners Method.
While this method is non-deterministic, it is much easier to find unknown ideograms. You do have to memorize the chart of 10 possible corner types, or the poem, but the speed difference in finding words using a four-corner dictionary is large. My time to translate 30 ideograms has gone from a little over an hour to under 30 minutes.
Another good free online dictionary exists at Mandarin Tools. And if you understand German, xuexi zhongwen.de has a slew of Chinese reading material with translation into German.