Friday 8 June 2012

Book Review: Cranium-Cracking Cryptic Crosswords

Cranium-Cracking Cryptic Crosswords Tony Chesterley Having seen the work of Tony Chesterley before and his articles on how to write creative anagram clues, I was keen to get hold of his debut book - Cranium-Cracking Cryptic Crosswords, a collection of 40 cryptic crosswords set by him. I've spent the last few weeks solving a puzzle a day from the book and have enjoyed it very much.

It took me a couple of puzzles to get used to the setting style, gradually discovering that the California-based setter is liberal with his anagrams, loves the false capitalization trick and does not do cryptic definitions. [Apparently US cryptic crosswords stay away from cryptic definitions and other complexities like reverse wordplay.] The puzzles are about the Financial Times level of difficulty – a few starter clues, other clues of varied toughness, mostly accessible vocabulary. I occasionally stumbled over unfamiliar American expressions in the answers, which was a change from stumbling over unfamiliar British expressions. Such instances did not lessen the enjoyment of the puzzles, rather made me think "how could I not have known this?" This includes the word 'MacGyveresque' from the introduction.

Each puzzle has a whimsical title, drawn from the surface context of the puzzle's clues. It added to the fun to be battling Pill Bill or reining in Upward Nobility rather than solving Puzzle nos. 4 or 7. There is a distinct American flavour to the clue surfaces, so Yanks and Donners and states of America show up visibly in place of Tories and Cockneys and towns in Britain. The surfaces are thoughtfully constructed, smooth without compromising on the cryptic reading. Sample this:

Puzzle #14, 2A: Adolescent minor released from year-long sentence (8) _O_____L

The book opens with a four-page introduction to cryptic crosswords, allocating a few lines and an example each for the basic clue types. This section manages the difficult art of being compact and clear at the same time. For someone looking for a way to learn cryptic crosswords, the introduction is a nice starting point but I doubt that a new solver would be able to graduate to solving the following 40 puzzles straightaway. What might have helped is a few clues/puzzles with hints to pave the way to the actual puzzles. The good part is that all solutions are annotated, so a new solver who takes a peek at the back pages will learn not just what the answer is but also how it is derived.

Five puzzles from the book are available online. Have a look to get a feel of the book's contents.

About the author & the making of the book

tony chesterley Tony Chesterley started dabbling in setting crosswords about 15 years ago. The first puzzles he wrote were by hand and (he suspects) probably broke all bounds of solvability. He put the idea of serious cryptic setting on the shelf for years till getting laid off in 2008 gave him the time to write crosswords in earnest. He submitted his first puzzle to Alberich, who helped him polish it up and published on it his website. The book has an acknowledgment to Alberich and long-time U.S. setter Bob Stigger.

Tony started filling out his collection last autumn, writing and refining his puzzles over the course of the next few months, finally publishing his book in April 2012.

Almost all the cryptics I've solved are from books, since so few U.S. newspapers carry cryptics these days,” Tony says. “The pool of American cryptics has gotten more and more sparse over the past ten years, and one of my motivations in writing this book was to help fill the void.”

The crosswords in this book have been created with pretty basic setting tools. Tony started with and still uses the freeware version of Puzzlers' Cave Crossword Compiler (unrelated to the professional-level software of the same name). He added Crossword Express to his toolbox when it became freeware, then its successor Magnum Opus which eventually went defunct.

Tony plans to buy Sympathy when he starts work on Cranium-Cracking Cryptic Crosswords Volume 2.

Solve These

In closing, I'll leave you with three more clues from C4 – enjoy.

Puzzle #10, 25A: Lady attending musical Summer, the last for Barry White (10) C___D_____
Puzzle #3, 25A: Twilight is returning to the screen (5) ____E
Puzzle #36, 16A: Swell! Mother takes hours getting prepared (8) __S___O_

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SandhyaP said...

Adolescent minor released from year-long sentence (8) {Y}{(-m)OUTHFUL}

Lady attending musical Summer, the last for Barry White (10) {CHAR}{DONNA}{Y}

Twilight is returning to the screen (5) {SI}{EVE}<-

Swell! Mother takes hours getting prepared (8) M{USHRO*}OM

Lakshmi Vaidyanathan said...

Twilight is returning to the screen (5) ____E

IS <-- SI
Twilight = EVE
Yet to try other 2 clues.

Lakshmi Vaidyanathan said...

Adolescent minor released from year-long sentence (8) _O_____L

Chesterley said...

Thank you Shuchi, for an informative review of C4. It was insightful to see how my cryptics compare to British ones. Hats off to Sandhya for being the first to solve all four clues!

The book's introduction includes the address to my website, where readers can find a more extensive how-to guide that does include a practice puzzle. I plan to use a trimmer version of this for the intro to C4 volume 2.

You are welcome to visit my Facebook page where I often post links to interesting articles about cryptics and the English language in general. There's a discount code you can use to buy direct from the publisher, which can help offset some of the international shipping cost.

By the way, for those not keen on the reference, MacGyver was an iconic US TV show from the 1980's. As Wikipedia puts it, MacGyver "is a resourceful agent with an encyclopedic knowledge of science, able to solve complex problems with everyday materials he finds at hand, along with his ever-present duct tape and Swiss Army knife."