Friday, May 1, 2020

Indie puzzle highlights: April 2020

Perhaps not as great as March, but another great month!

April 4: Join the Navy (Ricky Cruz, Cruzzles)

I'm immediately won over by the fact that the title is a Simpsons reference, but the puzzle itself is fantastic too. The revealer is BACKMASKING, with the theme entries hiding Satanic terms backwards, just like that devilish rock and roll music does. So PIANO SONATAS hides a reversed SATAN, NANOMEDICINE hides a reversed DEMON, and ANNE HEGERTY hides a reversed GEHENNA, which is an amazing find. Lots of spice in the fill, too, including FRENEMY, EUROBEAT, CLOWN CAR, KNUCKLE, VAPORIZED, ZINNIA, and DAMAGED (clued as [Tattoo on the forehead of Jared Leto's Joker]).

April 8: Themeless 9 (Stella Zawistowski, Tough As Nails)

Really smooth work from Stella in this themeless, whose highlight is the stack of CHEONGSAM, BOX CAMERA, and SOPHISTRY. We've also got the topical ZOOM BOMBING, and fun clues for SHAKESPEARE ([Source of many an epic burn]) and FANNY PACK ([What Gucci calls a "belt bag" and wants $1290 for, LOL]).

April 10: Themeless (Brooke Husic, Sid's Grids)

I'm a sucker for a themeless with a weird, striking grid pattern, and this puzzle has what Brooke accurately calls a "quirky Celtic knot-esque grid." The layout means that aside from the four intersecting 15s, most of the fill is short for a themeless. But the 15s (PERSONALITY TEST, THE CHOCOLATE WAR, CHRISTMAS MARKET, and UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS) are fun, and there's some fresh stuff in the short fill too, including ENBY, ASMR, and XOXO.

April 11: Changing Places (Tom McCoy)

Incredibly niche, but a puzzle that's basically designed precisely for me. The gimmick is that the answers are written in the International Phonetic Alphabet, with one phoneme per square, which must have been incredibly hard to construct. The instructions tell you that the theme answers are puns created by a particular phonological process; from the title, I assumed that process would be metathesis, in which two sounds switch places, but it's considerably more elegant than that. Instead, they're formed by nasal place assimilation, in which a nasal consonant (like m or n) at the end of a syllable adopts the place of articulation (where in the mouth it's pronounced) of the first sound of the next syllable. So we have ROAMING GOD (where the n becomes a ng), SCREAM PLAY, DOOM BUGGIES, and PING CUSHION. The theme, in other words, is a simple letter-change theme - but only if the entries are written in the IPA! A truly ingenious use of a gimmick.

April 12: Themeless (Amanda Rafkin, Rossword Puzzles)

Another guest themeless I really liked. Chock full of modern stuff like BODY POSITIVITY, WON THE INTERNET, and TXT SLANG, and the NOSEDIVE/TAILSPIN pairing is very nice. A few excellent clues, too, including [Invasive plant?] for ENEMY SPY and [One dealing with a lot of bull] for TOREADOR.

April 14: Year 7 Puzzle 15 (Andrew Ries, Aries Rows Gardens)

I think this is the first Aries Rows Garden I've featured - his RGs are consistently good, but it's hard to compete with Joon. This one's just jam-packed with fun row entries, though - the highlights are THINGAMAJIG, TENNIS SHOES, POODLE SKIRT, STRAPLESS BRA, CAR TROUBLE, STARTER KIT, TEAM PICTURE, and UMBRELLA STAND.

April 14: On Your Marks (Sid Sivakumar, Sid's Grids)

Sid's Grids was popping this month, and there are probably like half a dozen puzzles from the site that I could have included - he's both prolific and consistently impressive. Don't want it to get to his head, though, you know? So I'll limit myself to Brooke's themeless and this one. The theme is about VIBE CHECKs, with synonyms for "vibe" (MOOD, FEELING, and ATMOSPHERE) forming checkmark shapes in the grid. Having made puzzles with similar themes before, I know how hard they are to pull off, since all the theme letters appear in three different words, not just two. Sid does it cleanly, though, and even sneaks in some colorful bonus fill, like MOUSSAKA, GOD YES, and COCOA PUFF.

April 16: Snakeheads/Belted Up (Erik Agard and Aaron Shoemaker, USA Today)

The USA Today crosswords under Erik's editorship are predictable (in a good way) - it's generally going to be a very basic theme type, with squeaky clean fill and easy cluing. But I appreciate that there's the occasional puzzle with a wrinkle, like a slightly out-there theme or an unusual grid pattern. This one's unusual in that, as the title suggests, the theme works in two different ways. The theme entries (GREEN ACRES, CORN TORTILLA, GARTER STITCH, BLACK POWER) all start with words that can precede "snake" - but those words can also all predece "belt," so they do double duty. Not sure I've ever seen anything quite like it before.

April 25: Sub Division (Evan Kalish, USA Today)

On the other hand, this puzzle is completely standard. The theme involves phrases with HERO hidden in them: USHER OUT, RAISE THE ROOF, MOTHER OF PEARL, BEACH EROSION, and EITHER/OR. This one stands out because of the eight-letter theme entries which partially overlap the 12s, when the three longer theme entries would've been plenty, and also because the extra theme entries don't compromise the fill at all. In fact, there are lots of solid mid-length entries, including UNFURL, CURATOR, WASHED UP, TRAFFIC, and SHTETL, as well as Rihanna's nickname RIH, which I see in puzzles very rarely, though RIRI seems to be relatively common.

April 29: Year 3 Puzzle 17 (Andy Kravis, Aries Puzzles)

Yet another guest themeless! To this one, all I can say is CHEF'S KISS. Among the fill, I'm a fan of AQUEMINI, KAREN O, STUNT KITE, and INDOOR CAT clued as [Domestic flight risk?]. But I'm most impressed by the fresh clues for staple bits of short fill, including SIS, NED, ESS, and AFRO.

April 30: Out of Left Field #5 (Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, Out of Left Field)

They're no longer at The Nation, but their work is as good as ever. Favorite clues:

- [Old film is strangely semi-violent] for SILENT MOVIE
- [Glass rim with Greek letter in front] for PHILIP
- [Spangle beginning to scare bobtail horse] for SEQUIN
- [Schmear spread out a bit at a time!] for SCHMEAR
- [German city renowned for its iron and tin, by the sound of it?] for ESSEN
- [Northern California: place for West Coast rapper] for TUPAC

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