Review : Pocket Posh Shakespeare, from The Puzzle Society

I love a good puzzle. Even got dragged to one of those puzzler’s league conventions, once. And everything’s better with Shakespeare, right? (Seems like there’s a Bacon joke in there somewhere.)

Whenever Andrews McMeel Publishing asked me if I wanted to review a Shakespeare puzzle book from The Puzzle Society, I got all excited. I didn’t think such a thing even existed – as a matter of fact I’d even given thought to seeing if I could piece together and distribute one myself. So I quickly said yes.

What was I expecting? I think, when I think “puzzle book”, I imagine those ubiquitous, cheapy “5000 Sudoku Puzzles!” ones you see at the supermarket checkout for a buck ninety-nine, and I think I was expecting something like that here. So imagine my pleasant surprise when out of the shipping envelope dropped a smaller book that looks exactly like a Moleskine notebook. Hard, textured cover. Strong binding. Even an embedded elastic wrapped around, to keep it closed when you’re not using it. Nice. Quality stuff, here.

The book itself is labelled as having “100 puzzles and quizzes.” What sorts of puzzles? A whole variety:

* Word searches (“Find all these words and characters from Antony and Cleopatra”, or “Find all these cliches that Shakespeare first used”) Both the traditional kind as well as “pathfinders” where each word links up to a new one and you have to find them all in a row.

* Quizzes (ranging from easy (“What did Shakespeare bequeath to his wife Anne in his will?”) to tricky (“Which is the largest female role, by line count?” Your mileage may vary.)

* Crosswords, and multiple variations – Kriss Kross, ArrowWords, etc…

* Codecrackers – one of my favorites, where you’ve got a crossword sort of puzzle where each blank has a number between 1 and 26, and you have to figure out which letter goes with which number. Do it right and spell out a Shakespeare quote.

* A variety of smaller puzzles like a jigsaw puzzle with letters on it, or “word wheels”, or word transformation games (for instance you’re given “drat” and “a light breeze”, so you add an F to get draft)

How’s the Shakespeare? As billed, every puzzle has some Shakespeare in it. I have to be honest, some seem to be phoning it in a bit more than others. A word search where every word is a Macbeth character? Cool. A traditional crossword puzzle, with traditional non-Shakespeare clues, with one little “At the end, the letters in the shaded circles will spell out a Shakespeare character” addition on the end? Not so much.

Here’s my metric for dealing with that – does my knowledge of Shakespeare in some way help me solve the puzzle? If so, then I count it as a win. For instance if I’m supposed to be guessing the name of a Shakespeare character by adding letters based on clues, but I spot right away based on the closing F that the character is Falstaff, then win. Likewise even with the word searches – there’s something exciting about spotting the word Leontes among a scramble of letters that you simply don’t feel when you find a generic word like vehicle or library. This is why I love the code cracker puzzles, because the earlier I recognize the quote, the faster I can fill in the unknown letters. I don’t know about you, but I only ever consider a puzzle done when I’ve filled in all the clues, not just when I got the “special” answer at the end.

With that metric in mind, I’m happy to report that pretty much all these puzzles succeed. The crosswords less so, for reasons described – but even there, you never know if you’re going to get a “movie based on a Shakespeare play” or “a famous actor famous for playing Shakespeare”, so there’s some challenge to it, and some level of surprise.

Downsides? Well, this is a small book. As I did several puzzles I found it very hard to keep the cover curled back and out of the way, holding the book in one hand, while still keeping it firm enough to write in. If I put it down on the table, I think the cover would constantly be trying to get in the way. And though I want to share these puzzles with my kids, the form factor really doesn’t lend itself to sharing. In a big puzzle book we could all put our heads together (literally, sometimes, complete with thunk noise :)) and everybody could do a word search. With such a small book I can maybe let me 8yr old take a crack at some puzzles by herself, but the 4yr old’s not getting his little chocolatey hands on it.

There’s also the potential issue of price. I don’t think this is out yet – the marketing copy said April 2011 – but the price printed on it is $7.99 US. I’m sitting here asking myself, if I was browsing the bookstore and spotted this in the wild, would I have scooped it up at that price? If you’re a puzzling Shakespeare fan who is going to do all the puzzles by yourself, then yes absolutely of course you do. [ While we’re on the subject, if you are in the mind to snap this one up, please consider clicking that Amazon link up there, which is an affiliate link, and helps support Shakespeare Geek. Thanks!

In my case, knowing the above family constraints, I wonder. That’s expensive for a book of puzzles that’s really just for me, not something I can share with the kids. Even though this one is 100% pure Shakespeare, they’d get more value out of one of those $1.99 cheapies at the front of the store with 500 pages in it.

Overall I’m very glad that books like this exist, and I am far happier to see this quality product (granted, at the higher price) than if I’d been handed a ninety-nine cent special that looks like a coloring book. My issue with the price could well be my own personal situation and nothing more. Know what I’d love to see, now that I think about it? Once this book is out, I’d love it if their website had online versions – even printable ones – of a bunch of the puzzles. That would cover my “sharing with the kids” issue completely. If that were the case, then all my reservations would be completely gone.

Now! Anybody know a three letter word, ends with O, Much blank About Nothing….? Hmmm…..

UPDATED  Win this book!   (Contest ends Thursday, March 10)

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