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.