If I had to describe this book in a metaphorical way, I’d say it was a pleasant amble through antique and curio shops with pauses in between for trying out vigorous yoga positions.
Have you ever glanced below the ‘normal’ crossword you’re filling in to wonder what those mad clues could possibly mean? I couldn’t understand how people got into them. How does one learn? What are the rules? This book is your solution. Not only does Astle take you clue type by clue type (he calls them recipes) and explain them all (anagrams and homophones through to rebuses and hybrids), he gives you a shopping list of trigger words that tip you off as to which recipe you’re dealing with, rendering this book a very handy reference manual for any aspirant cruciverbalist.
Astle has taken great care with his Master Puzzle that gives the book its structure (Psst! a quick tip: make sure you photocopy all the puzzles before you start). Each chapter solves one clue in the square and contains its own theme and story: some historical event relevant to the development of crosswords, or, a stage in the development of David Astle into Super Word Geek, giving the book its quasi memoir status. The latter include some highly amusing anecdotes, such as his having once worked as a Tarzan-a-gram and his earlier efforts at breaking into setting for the papers, while the former cover fascinating historical ground such as the Daily Telegraph crosswords that mysteriously contained the Normandy invasion code words.
I was thoroughly absorbed by this book and I enjoyed the cleverness of the solutions...but I have to say, the chore of actually nutting out the recipe type before I can even begin solving the thing made me realise cryptics are not for the impatient. The fact that Astle describes a competition during WWII where participants were able to solve a whole puzzle in less than 12 minutes simply defies my imagination. No wonder the winners were trooped off to Bletchley Park to do battle with the Enigma code.
A particular mind is needed for cryptic crosswords, I console myself, so I’ll keep using mine for the gae, tae, nae of the Scrabble Board (which gets its own fun chapter) while admiring from afar the mind of a man who simply cannot take any word at face value.
Reviewer note: After feeding my own name into an annagram machine, the result was ironic, given my own incompetence: Ah, compilations!