OK, let’s trot out the warnings again:
1) As an established setter and solver, I’m not really the audience for this book
2) As an established setter and solver, I’m likely to be incredibly picky
and add a third
3) There’s a puzzle of mine in this one
I can’t imagine why the book keeps popping open at page 153. Actually, it’s a compact hardback, and sufficiently tightly bound that it won’t pop open anywhere. The DJ bears the standard ‘it’s a vase; no, it’s two faces; no, it’s a vase’ illusion, rather spoiled by putting green lipstick on the faces, which constrains the viewer to see them. Designers – pish!
The book also has an index, unlike its two confreres. So I naturally turned to look for Milorad Pavic. Not there (he isn’t in the others either).
The ‘audacious’ structure of the book (see the Amazon blurb) is that each chapter is linked to a clue-and-answer in an Araucaria puzzle specially constructed for the purpose. As such it can be read in the way you solve a puzzle: start at 5 across, jump to 20 down, now I can get 23 across… Each chapter is a self-contained consideration of one or other aspect of cruciverbalism, and each chapter comes with lots of cross-references in it, allowing you to skip from topic to topic.
All rather reminiscent of those book-cum-roleplay-games that were rather popular a few years ago: you know the sort of thing: if you drink from the goblet, go to paragraph 45 (45: ha! you die! it was poisoned!); if you dash it to the floor, go to paragraph 213 (213: ha! you die! it explodes!). I once analysed results from a questionnaire with such a tree structure, and the day after they had been distributed we discovered one question was inaccessible. (Nonetheless about 5% of respondents filled it in.) So I have a suspicion of these sorts of thing (I’m wary of picking up goblets as well), and I read the book straight through.
But in stages. It is a book for dipping into – the free-standing nature of the chapters sees to that. Each chapter is separated from its successor by a panel with examples of clues or wordplay or people generally relevant to the chapter you’ve just finished. I did get tired of looking up Notes in the Solutions section and vice versa – the two appendices aren’t really that distinguishable (have I said ‘Designers – pish!’ already?). The overall range is not dissimilar to Astle’s book, though it’s fair to say that Connor is more technically-minded, and spends more time on how crosswords work. However, I think in the end he is more playful than Astle as well. He also has a chapter interviewing Kathryn Friedlander and Philip Fine: for another take on that research, see here. If Astle is for your relative or friend who wonders why you’re obsessed with crosswords, then Connor is for the relative or friend who wants to share the interest. In reality, I wouldn’t want to be without either of them.
In some ways, Halpern loses out by coming at things only from a practitioner’s point of view. Astle is a practitioner-cum-journalist, which adds rigour, while Connor is a journalist-cum-solver which swings the point of view round as well. Each of the three books has its merits, and most keen cruciverbalists will have to have all three. But your relative’s Christmas lists may need further thought.
What? Milorad Pavic? A touchstone of mine for the research done. Pavic came to brief attention with his Dictionary of the Khazars, which was a novel in the form of a dictionary (actually, three dictionaries). This was his major success, which he followed up with Landscape Painted with Tea. This second novel was also in an unusual form – ah, you’re ahead of me… Yes, you could get a different take on the story by reading the chapters in across entries, or those in down entries. Some, of course, were in both but each option also meant that some ‘unchecked’ segments of the story were skipped. So a book constructed around a crossword is not so audacious after all.
Sadly, Pavic’s book appeared when I had a large backlog of reading (though, come to think of it, when isn’t that true?) and I never quite got round to it. But a VHC to Astle for finding an Australian equivalent, while people with less time to spare may want the short story option here.