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Two Girls, One on Each Knee: The Puzzling,…
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Two Girls, One on Each Knee: The Puzzling, Playful World of the Crossword

by Alan Connor

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A nice little collection of [mostly cryptic] crossword trivia. Whilst the book's name looks even dodgier if you've got a bookshop browser tab open with only the first three words showing, the US title is the considerably more sober The Crossword Century. Which, the author would point out, reflects differences between setters on respective sides of the pond: The language of wordplay can be suggestive, even though the setter may with a straightish face insist that any lewdness is all in the solver’s mind. The British setters, that is. American puzzles maintain an air of respectability and so eschew clues that fail the ‘Sunday-morning-breakfast test’...Definitions can themselves evoke imagery loucher than the answer. I wonder if they left out the paragraphs about the Viz crossword for the Yanks.

Given the repetition of the info about these national differences in early and final chapters, and a few other recurrences, I suspect the book is compiled from columns or blog posts. (The author writes the Guardian's crossword blog - I don't read it regularly.) It's less repetitive than some column-based books, so they've at least made some effort with the editing.

It's maybe ten years since I'd read other books on the history of crosswords, so I didn't mind hearing some points again, but there was sufficient new material to make Two Girls an interesting light non-fiction read. Connor has a more modern gossipy tone than older aficionados, so even when it comes to the old stuff, we learn things that previously went unsaid. Sadly Ximenes, the former Observer setter who helped establish many of the rules of British crosswords, rather lived up to his pseudonym in his role as a schoolmaster, being "known for his keenness on corporal chastisement".

British newspaper crosswords tend to be, well, rather British, with something Wodehousian, sun setting on the Empire, a dash of Carry On about them. Whilst various changes have been made over the years to make them a touch more contemporary, chuck out some obsolete references that were only familiar to the 80+ age group, Connor is one of the people who, like me, likes the 'vintage' feel and doesn't want to revamp everything. It would still have been interesting - and a slightly weightier book - if he had given more space to debates about potentially alienating (slightly un-PC) language. Another Guardian setter, Arachne, has written about these matters online, although you couldn't call her a prude: one of her clues, which swears at George W. Bush, is included in this book.

There is a sort of cryptic crossword how-to near the beginning, but unless you are an absolute natural (or someone who used to be consistently good and is just in need of a brief refresher) it isn't enough to learn from, and there are very few easy examples.

If you read this, for goodness' sake get a paper copy, not an ebook. With the possible exception of crossword geniuses like my friend Matthew (perhaps there are others in my friends list I'm unaware of) you will want to flip back and forth all the time and be able to see more than one page at once. Extra clues to a puzzle at the beginning appear at points throughout the text, and sets of older or tricky clues are given at various junctures as examples, with answers in the back after the endnotes. ( )
2 vote antonomasia | Jun 12, 2014 |
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In this book, the author celebrates the wit, ingenuity and frustration of setting and solving puzzles. From the beaches of D-Day to the imaginary worlds of three-dimensional crosswords, to the British school teachers and journalists who turned the form into the fiendish sport it is today, encompassing the most challenging clues, particular tricks, the world's greatest setters and famous solvers, PG Wodehouse and the torturers of the Spanish Inquisition, this is an ingenious book for lovers of this very particular form of wordplay.… (more)

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