Saturday, February 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: January 2020

January 3: Singsong Syllables (Rachel Fabi, USA Today)

A remarkably tight theme, with a perfect title: each theme entry is of the form _ING _ONG _______, where all the words alliterate. We've got PING PONG PADDLES, DING DONG DITCH, and KING KONG COSTUME (which I'd definitely give some side-eye as a themeless answer, but as part of a theme like this, it works great). As always with the USA Today, the fill's clean, and we've got some nice bonuses in the fill in the form of TIGHT-KNIT and Phoebe Waller-Bridge's FLEABAG.

January 5: Relatively Speaking (Matt Gaffney, New York Magazine)

This one's got an EXTENDED FAMILY theme, where -KIN is added to the end of phrases, with wacky results. The themers are really cute, I think because -KIN is an inherently cute ending. I mean, just look at them: NEEDED A PUSHKIN, PAY AT THE PUMPKIN, SIAMESE CATKIN, THE BAY OF PIGSKIN, BABY BUMPKIN, and POWER NAPKIN. Good fill, too; as is sometimes the case with Matt's puzzles, there are more partials than I like to see, but entries like TIKTOK and ZOO ANIMAL make up for it.

January 7: Year 5 Rows Garden 18 (Joon Pahk, Outside the Box)

Joon rings in the new decade with the seed entry ROARING TWENTIES, and makes room for colorful entries like SWASHBUCKLER, OFFICE ROMANCE (clued as [Working relationship?]), SINGULAR THEY (the American Dialect Society's word of the decade), and ROSEMARY'S BABY.

January 9: Puzzle No. 3520 (Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, The Nation)

This cryptic's got a mini-theme, where the five W's are hidden phonetically in some of the across entries (Y-INTERCEPT, HOOVER DAM, WEDNESDAY, UNDERWEAR, and ANGKOR WAT), but the real attraction, of course, is in the cluing. The highlights:

- UNICORN: [Mythical creature's simple garment, worn without the front bits]
- DEEP: [Went back into the sea]
- ANGKOR WAT: [Lee faces a choice of initial letters for radio stations at religious site]
- REVISIT: [Consider once again what may happen when playing tag with a member of the clergy]
- CYANIDE: [Candy (i.e. disguised poison)]
- PURCHASE: [Buy tea, mostly in a bag]

January 12: Whose Side Are You On? (Ross Trudeau, Rossword Puzzles)

This one has been officially declared #notacrossword by the Not a Crossword Twitter account, because it breaks a cardinal rule of crosswords: all-over interlock. But with good reason! The grid is divided in two by a column of black squares in the middle, but worry not - there are several doors passing through the column, hidden in the entries TANDOORI, IT'S DO OR DIE, and THE DOORS. That last one serves as the revealer, and as the icing on the cake, references the band's song "Break On Through (To the Other Side). Quite an elegant, layered theme.

January 16: Aries Cryptic 22 (Andrew Ries, Aries Puzzles)

Probably my favorite Aries Cryptic yet, in large part thanks to two clues that cleverly reinterpret in-the-language phrases. TOM BRADY is clued as [Grave-yard shift for long-tenured driver at Gillette Stadium], efficiently reparsing "grave-yard shift." And FLUFFY is clued as [Superficial target of some shots at the beginning of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"], reinterpreting "extremely loud" as FF and "incredibly close" as the close of the word "incredibly," Y. Genius! Other great clues:

- ADMIT IT: [Playing timid at frustrated interrogator's demand]
- PANTS: [Article of clothing doesn't breathe well]
- DISMAL: [IDs lost prior to returning flight is no fun at all]
- FANTASIZE: [Imagine NAFTA jolted economy, for instance]
- OUTLINE: [Heads of organizations underreporting their losses in net earnings summary]

January 24: Photo Finish (Claire Rimkus, USA Today)

The theme here is, unsurprisingly, phrases that end in synonyms for "photo." Each of the theme entries (WHISKEY STILL, COLD SNAP, SLAPSHOT, and PAISLEY PRINT) uses a different meaning of the synonym, which is a nice touch. But the main reason I'm highlighting this puzzle is that it shows that sparkly fill isn't all about the long answers (the TENTPOLES, if you will). The sparkly short fill in this one includes BAO (which I've seen in surprisingly few puzzles), the TV show POSE, KESHA (whose new album, High Road, came out yesterday), UP TOP, and the Los Angeles SPARKS.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: December 2019

December 4: Year 2 Puzzle 49 (Andrew Ries, Aries Freestyle)

This one was a nice birthday present for me. Some devious cluing, including [Speaker of the house?] for AMAZON ECHO, [Steps in a single file] for LINE DANCES, [Pick-up game] for JACKS, and [Childless] for ADULTS ONLY. I also loved the grid-spanning AM I GLAD TO SEE YOU.

December 8: Themeless 7 (Brian Thomas, Puzzles That Need a Home)

This themeless features one of my favorite clues from recent memory: [Libraries of congress?] for ADULT SITES. A lot of long highlights in the fill, too, including HARPER'S BAZAAR, DOSE OF REALITY, SALMON CANNONS, MEGALOPOLIS, and IN-STORE ONLY.

December 8: Say Hey (Matt Gaffney, New York Magazine)

Fun theme, where the theme entries are phrases starting with (near-)homophones of "Siri," so that if you say them after "hey" you might accidentally summon Siri. We've got SEARING HEAT, SERIOUS DANGER, SYRIAN REFUGEES (not exactly uplifting, though it does remind me of the absolutely wrenching documentary For Sama, which I watched recently), SERIES PREMIERE, SIRIUS XM RADIO, and CEREAL AISLE. Highlights in the fill include OSCAR MAYER, PORTUGUESE, SCHLEP, PORK RIBS, and KLUTZ.

December 13: Got 2 Go (Erik Agard, USA Today)

Erik hasn't been posting much on his site lately, presumably because he's been busy with other gigs. He was writing puzzles for the Arizona Daily Star for a while, which was great news for Arizonans but less so for the rest of us, since they weren't available online. And now he's editing the USA Today crossword, which is great news for everyone! The first bunch were written by Erik himself, but the more recent ones have been written by an assortment of constructors. I could've picked pretty much any of the puzzles so far for this writeup, since they're all exemplary easy puzzles, but this one encapsulates their strengths pretty well.

The theme's simple: two-word phrases where each word starts with GO (GOOD GOLLY, GOLDEN GOPHER, GOBBLE GOBBLE, and GOAT GOUDA). The fill's smooth and accessible (Erik's not afraid to add in a pair of cheater squares even with a relatively unambitious theme, to keep things as clean as possible). And there's all sorts of diverse representation: we've got TRANS and NON-binary people represented, and lots of black culture, with MAYA Angelou, a RAPS clue mentioning Saweetie, and OOP clued with reference to the Jasmine Masters "and I oop" meme (with "alley-oop" in there too, to keep things easy).

December 17: Year 6 Puzzle 51 (Andrew Ries, Aries Rows Garden)

I only just added Andrew's Rows Gardens to my rotation, and I don't regret it. This one has a practically Pahkian quantity of lively fill, including NICKELODEON, WIGGLE ROOM, STREET CRED, TRICK SHOTS, CLEAN ENERGY, WHERE IT'S AT, and GRACE PERIOD.

December 19-22: Chris Words Origin Story (Chris King, Chris Words)

OK, I've gotta admit that I haven't solved this one - it's been a hectic week or so. But I'm pretty sure I get the basic thrust of the meta, and it's a neat one. (I'm writing this on December 31, and the deadline's at midnight, so maybe Chris will have posted the answer by the time you're reading this.)

Chris, who just published a book of 13x13 puzzles, gives us a series of four 13x13s that combine to make a single meta. Elegant touch #1: he posted the puzzles one at a time, and the meta mechanism reveals itself gradually. The titles of the first two puzzles  ("Gridwork" and "Across and Down") aren't terribly helpful unless you're clever and you cotton on to the meaning of "origin" in the overall title, but the third title ("Plane of Existence") gives you more of a nudge, and then ("Coordinated Effort") makes things explicit. We're looking for coordinates in the grids! Each theme entry suggests a pair of letters - for example, in the first grid, LADDER GOLF suggests VW GOLF, LOW RESOLUTION suggests HD RESOLUTION, and WITNESS BOX suggests PO BOX (I think!). Elegant touch #2: putting four 13x13 grids together results in a 26x26 grid, perfect for turning pairs of letters into coordinates. Here's where I got stumped, because the first two ways I tried (putting the grids in order from left to right and top to bottom, and putting them in the order of the quadrants in Cartesian geometry) didn't seem to pan out, unless I just messed something up, which is highly possible. I'm eager to find out the solution, but even without knowing it, I'm confident this is excellent stuff.

December 23: Year 5 Variety Puzzle 8 (Stella Zawistowski, Outside the Box)

Stella's been posting a cryptic clue a day on her Twitter to practice her clue-writing muscles, and judging from this puzzle, it's paid off. This one's got lots of clues with smooth and amusing surface sense, including:

- [Small change purse primarily advertised through fashion magazine] for BAGATELLE
- [Heads of state cry excitedly "Not the nose!"] for SCENT
- [Boss broke down crying] for SOBS
- [It's not to be broken - oh, God, damaged slightly] for GOOD HABIT
- [In street art, a new pattern] for TARTAN
- [Check-up for Jesus' patient] for LEPER
- [I let dad awkwardly spread out] for DILATED

December 30: Down and Out (Chris Adams, arctan(x)words)

We've seen this type of theme before: a word is hidden in some across entries, and you have to skip the letters in that word when solving the downs. This is a particularly elegant version of the theme, because the word being dropped is DROP, and it relates to the apt title, "Down and Out," in its clue, [Word that can precede down and out (and what's down and out in this puzzle's theme entries)]. The acrosses, all colorful, are YURI ANDROPOV, HYDROPONICS, and QUADROPHENIA. Of course, all the down entries are valid with or without the letters of DROP - for example, we've got INS(P)ECT, (R)OMAN(O), and RE(P)ELS. Hard to get excited about I(D)ED and AR(R)S, on the other hand, but I know from experience how hard this type of theme is to construct. Another nice bonus: a fresh clue for RAGU, [Sauce brand mentioned in Lizzo's "Juice"].

December 31: Let's Make a Date! (Claire Rimkus, USA Today)

OK, I highlighted one of Erik's own USA Today puzzles already, but I feel like I should highlight a submission too. Again there are a bunch I could have picked, but I'll go with the last one of the year, a nice and simple New Year's Eve theme with NYE hidden in the theme entries (PONY EXPRESS, SPINY EELS, BUNNY EARS, and LEMON YELLOW). Super clean grid, great representation of women in the clues (activist EMMA Gonzalez, PADMA Lakshmi, Isabel Allende's EVA Luna).

December 31: Looking Ahead (Sid Sivakumar and Matthew Stock, Sid's Grids)

I love a good shaped grid, and this one's a doozy, with the white squares spelling out "2020." It's mostly a themeless, with some New Year's 2020-related entries in there, but the clues sparkle. [They *do* want scrubs, for short] for MDS is just one of the many fun, fresh clues that liven up the many 3-letter entries in this grid.


December 31: Year 2 Puzzle 53 (Neville Fogarty and Doug Peterson, Aries Freestyle)

Man, constructors were really making me work on New Year's Eve. Late on December 31, Neville and Doug dropped a guest puzzle for Aries Freestyle, and it's a beautifully clean 66-worder. Highlights in the fill include INSULT COMIC, DROP THE BALL, CALL ME MAYBE, CALZONE, PLAY GOD, and CENTURY EGGS; there's also a great "acting bug" pun in the clue for MALINGERING.







Monday, December 30, 2019

Puzzle #111: But really tho (guest puzzle by Nate Cardin)

For the last crossword of 2019, I'm delighted to present a guest puzzle (pdf, puz, pdf solution) by Nate Cardin. Nate edits the fantastic Queer Qrosswords packs, of which the second one came out not long ago - if you haven't bought it yet, what are you waiting for? He's also asked me to plug the Inkubator, which is now entering its second year, and which you should definitely subscribe to.

Nate's puzzle is a 14x13, and it's available in the usual formats, though because of the theme I recommend solving it online below or as a PDF. Enjoy!


Monday, December 9, 2019

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Indie puzzle highlights: November 2019

November 4: 9x9 Mini #2 (Trent H. Evans, Grid Therapy)

I have to admit I hadn't been keeping up with Trent's puzzles until a few days ago - I don't think they're indexed on Crossword Butler, so I'd forgotten he was still updating. So it's entirely possible I've missed some great stuff in the last couple months! Anyway, I went back and solved the puzzles from November, and this mini was my favorite; it manages to fit six lively 9s in a 9x9 grid (BEAST MODE, BABY SHARK, WORE A WIRE, ACAI BERRY, KATE SPADE, and LOOK ALIVE) without putting strain on the short fill - HAW is the only less-than-ideal entry.

November 13: Year 2 Puzzle 46 (Andrew Ries, Aries Freestyle)

Andrew rarely uses sizes other than 15x15 for his themelesses, but this time we've got a 17x15 grid to fit the marquee clue/answer pair: [Theory of relativity?] cluing LIKE FATHER LIKE SON. Lots of other clever clues in this one, including:

- [Score sheet?] for RUBRIC
- [Storm center] for KEYARENA, where the Seattle Storm play, at least when it's not being renovated
- [Band originally from New York] for ONEIDA
- [Food label advocate, maybe] for ROOMMATE
- [Ended for a while] for LONG GONE
-
[Lit before] for ERE
- [Theater box?] for NERDS

November 18: Breaking Barriers (Andy Kravis and Anna Gundlach, Outside the Box)

This contest puzzle is a "going too far" puzzle, in which many of the entries have too many letters, with the extra letters being placed in the black (or gray, in this case) squares. And this one's a meta, where the letters in the black squares spell out a question: Whose middle initial stood for "Pay it no mind"? The answer is the barrier-breaking activist Marsha P. Johnson, who literally broke barriers by shattering a cop car's windshield with a brick at Stonewall. (Her last name, incidentally, comes from the Howard Johnson's chain of restaurants, of all places.) A clever use of the "going too far" gimmick, with the topical long answers GAYBORHOOD and TRANSGENDER thrown in for good measure.

November 18: Nautical (Christopher Adams, arctan(x)words)

A beautiful example of a simple theme where there are very few possible theme answers, and they're all in the grid. Chris adds the suffix -naut to phrases to get various countries' words for space explorers; we've got American ASTRONAUT POPS, Russian COSMONAUT KRAMER, and Chinese TAIKONAUT DRUM. Some nice highlights in the fill, too, including IMPRESS ME, SIT STILL, BIG AND TALL, and US VS THEM.

November 23: Freestyle 116 (Christopher Adams, arctan(x)words)

Yep, Chris was on a roll this month. This one's a 23x17 freestyle with tons of lively entries. This is an example of one where your mileage might vary considerably. As Chris's puzzles often do, this one relies heavily on pop cultural names, which could be a trivia slog if you're not on his wavelength. Fortunately, I very much am on his wavelength, so I enjoyed entries like ERASERHEAD, the Jedi HIGH COUNCIL, DANA SCULLY, WILL TOLEDO, CTHULHU, LIL ROMEO, the PHOENIX SUNS, and STEELY DAN. But it's not all proper names: there's good stuff like BANJOLELE, PSEUDOCODE, FLUMMOX, and ERIN GO BRAGH too.

November 26: Year 5 Rows Garden 13 (Joon Pahk, Outside the Box)

As I've said here many times before, Joon always does good work, but this one had the highest proportion of lively fill this month, I think: topical TURKEY DAY, BATTERING RAM, BARE MINIMUM, PRETTIFIES, EGGNOG LATTE, PIECEMEAL, HUNG BY A THREAD... A couple of nice clues in [Green light collector?] for SOLAR PANEL and [Places where people barely get their feet wet?] for NUDE BEACHES, too.

November 27: Untitled (Caleb Madison, The Atlantic)

This little 7x7 themeless has a beautiful 2x2 square of Z's created by the crossing of PALAZZO, LIZZO, JAZZ AGE, and DAZZLE. I find that Caleb sometimes sacrifices short fill quality in these minis for the sake of the long entries, but as with Trent's puzzle above, the short fill's pretty clean here.

And that's it! The themeless-to-themed ratio seems especially high this month, though I wouldn't be surprised if it was always pretty high; I'm pretty picky with themed puzzles, because both the theme and the fill have to impress me, and I solved a lot of puzzles this month where I really liked one but not the other.