Thursday, May 5, 2016

Thursday, May 5, 2016, David Poole


What a fun theme! I was definitely confused to begin with. I put "agar" in a 1A: Cel material ([ACE]TATE), misreading the first word as "cell". Even then, the answer I chose is odd. I recognized it was wrong immediately because of 1D: "L'chaim!" (TOLIFE). Ah, Fiddler On The Roof.

I worked my way off of that answer into the SW corner. ARIETTA and scattered answers in the bottom got me RELIESON. I noted the "-" clue at 56D, and then got the revealer at 52A: Hidden advantage that this puzzle employs four times? ([ACE]INTHEHOLE). Very clever idea, using the black square as the hole, implying "ace". And this answer is the only one where it actually means "Ace".

My favorites are ADJ[ACE]NTTO and CRET[ACE]OUS, not least because they have to be symmetric and thus the same length and (inverse) pattern. LIBER[ACE] and VERS[ACE] are fine, although they both rely on the Italian endings. Also very nice is AMAZINGGR[ACE].

What's really nice about this puzzle is that because the theme material is primarily on the outer edges, the rest of the puzzle plays like a wide open themeless. Two excellent 10-letter non-theme answers are BLACKSHEEP and JULESVERNE. I love the piece of trivia for the latter. Who knew? I'd have guessed J.K. Rowling nowadays...

There are some odd entries: IIN is one of the stranger partials I've come across. INDC looks mighty peculiar, but it was pretty straightforward from the clue. 49D would be better clued in another way, even if it is topical nowadays.
Trivia for the day: 6D: European country whose telephone directories list people alphabetically by first name (ICELAND). I presume this is because there are no last names in the way we think of them: instead every person is known by their father's name followed by -son or -dottir. And maybe because the population of Iceland is 332,000.

- Colum

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Wednesday, May 4, 2016, Jacob Stulberg


This puzzle has it all. I love the presentation of the quotation in a cascading set of shaded four-letter words. Better, each word is actually hidden in another unrelated word (well, mostly - LIFER and "life" are from the same root). The movement of the words from NW to SE brings to mind falling rain. Very nice.

Certainly because so much theme is crammed into that diagonal, there are a number of 3-letter glue answers in the middle. But they are surprisingly minimal (partial HOI, abbreviation ORU for Oral Roberts University, suffix ISM). You also get the remarkable pair of ten-letter answers NONSTEROID and RUMORMILLS running through three theme answers each.

I also love 1A: "Dante Symphony" composer (LISZT). An unusual composition to reference, one which I've never heard. I would have expected a Hungarian Rhapsody or Liebestraum. For the wonderful Scrabbly density of his name, I'm giving him an A-.

What's really nice about this grid is the very open areas in the NE and SW, with only one theme answer each, which allows for some nice work. How nice is it that LONGFELLOW and FITZGERALD are the same number of letters? Any reference to the divine Ella is a win in my book, especially when her last name is so rare in crossword grids.

It's impressive that Mr. Stulberg matches these long theme answers with a second stacked 10-letter answer. 60A: Variety of sherry whose name means "little apple" (MANZANILLA) is excellent, especially because it reminds me of The Gondoliers. "Old Xeres we'll drink, manzanilla, montero..."

I'm inclined to overlook the proliferation of 3-letter answers at the corners. AFLICKER is mildly annoying. But whatever you might think of the puzzle, I'm sure it didn't cause you to go "ZZZ..."

- Colum

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Tuesday, May 3, 2016, John Westwig


I want to make something of the fact that all three of the answers along the top of the grid start with A and all three of the answers along the bottom of the grid start with S, but I can't for the life of me see what that might be. It's not terribly surprising about the bottom answers, because it's so useful to have an S at the end of words.

So, yeah. 1A: Laid up (ABED) is meh. I like the clue, and the word is acceptable although essentially out of common usage. I'll give it a C-.

Which is sort of how I feel about the puzzle as a whole. Cute theme, although I feel I've seen it before. All four examples are strong, and my favorite is ICHIROSSUZUKI. But the constraints from the two 15-letter answers and two 13-letter answers lead to fill like ALECTO (couldn't pull that name from my memory, even with ___CTO) and ROARK. References to Ayn Rand are not pleasant, in my opinion.

Also, YLEM. Oof.

I like 9D: Something to keep track of? (TRAINSET). 26D: Coyolxauhqui worshipper (AZTEC) and 25D: Where Toussaint L'Ouverture led a revolt (HAITI) are fun trivia clues. HYDROX is impressively Scrabbly. It just doesn't shine.

- Colum

Monday, May 2, 2016

Monday, May 2, 2016, Paula Gamache


I felt this puzzle played a little hard for a Monday. As an example, you have the symmetric answers at 21D and 42D (ASSAM and OKEMO). Two less-than-well-known place names, constrained by crossing two theme answers. There's also YVONNE Strahovski (who? - even after looking at the picture below, I don't recognize her). Many other proper names abound.
Then, there's the strange duplication of YOWZA and YOWIE. I recognize that they mean different things (barely), but still. So let's hope the theme makes up for it.

Well... I like the revealer (METOO). The rest are solidly recognizable two-word phrases where both words end in -ME. There is nothing incredibly brilliant about the phrases, but they are none of them stretches. I'd just like something sparkling somewhere, either theme or fill, and I don't get any. I guess that makes it Monday level, in the end.

1A: Coke rival (PEPSI) - D. Blatant commercialism is not acceptable at the first answer of the puzzle.

- Colum

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sunday, May 1, 2016, Joel Fagliano and Byron Walden


Guess who was up very early today, trying to overcome jet lag? Yup, that's me. Forced myself to stay in bed until 6:00, but it does give a leg up on the day. It's 10 AM and I've already unpacked, done the crossword, grocery shopped, and seeded the lawn. Ah, responsibility. Nothing like coming home after nine days in Paris to bring it home to you just how much has to be done on a daily basis.

Perhaps nobody is feeling pity for me.

Anyway, the puzzle today! It took me a while to get going on this grid, in large part because of the seven very long theme answers and my lack of any kind of aha moment until well through the grid. The theme is actually really straightforward. The word "star" is taken out of standard phrases or names and replaced with an asterisk. The answers are to the original phrase, but since the NYT has a habit of using asterisks to indicate theme answers (typically when there's a revealer), it was a nice piece of distraction.

The theme works best when the unstarred portion of the phrase stands on its own. Thus, 110A *Let's hope (ACTINGCAREER) is effective, as is 60A *Ted talks, say (BROKEREDASETTLEMENT), even if it's actually TED talks, and 42A: *Alliance member (UNITEDAIRLINES). Less successful are 39A: *Board (RIGHTSIDE) and particularly 87A: *Crossed pair (ROMEOANDJULIET).

Niggles aside, the grid is stuffed with excellent fill. There are a ton of non-theme long answers. Some might carp that GETANEDGE and TAPENADES are as long as the shortest theme answers, but since the theme is so clearly set aside, that doesn't bother me.

There are five down answers that cross three theme answers, including 3D: Clicker for Dorothy (RUBYSLIPPER: excellent), 20D: Celtic who was the M.V.P. of the 2008 N.B.A Finals (PAULPIERCE, a gimme for me, but welcome to see the full name), 37D: Revenue source for Fish and Wildlife department (LICENSEFEES, pretty good), 65D: Striven (TAKENPAINS, which feels a little strained to me), and 66D: What rugged individualists seldom admit to (NEEDINGHELP, great clue). I'd say that's four out of five strong answers in the areas that are most constrained.

But there's also MRMISTER, DERRIERE, and MUGGLES. I had fun with this puzzle.

1A: Grass and such (FORAGE) - I'll give a C+, better than average. I have to leave some room for stronger entries as the month goes by. I ought to look back over the months to see if there's grade inflation over the course of 30 days.

- Colum

Saturday, April 30, 2016, Mark Diehl


This took us forever! We just arrived at our rental property in the Finistère, and we solved this over several glasses of wine, cider, and beer, with our friends Carrie and Andrew, who, frankly, were little help, having just arrived from a full day of traveling.

So anyway, we finally finished it! My favorite clue might be 30A: They cast no votes (ANTIS). It had me fooled for quite some time, what with the emphasis on the wrong syllable and all.

32A: Key employer in England? (GAOLER) is tricky, but it doesn't seem quite perfect. And SHOPVAC (34A: Woodworker's device, informally) doesn't really need to have the "informally," I don't think, as the product is actually called a Shop-Vac. And that seems formal enough.

Franny was sorry to come up with TREPAN (9D: Bone-boring tool), since it's so gross. And GLOP (55D: Unappealing bowlful) might as well have been "slop," for all we knew. (of course, AVERAsING wouldn't have been a very good answer for "53A: Doing mean work?"...).

The 4x9 and 3x8 stacks are pretty strong, but we felt that MAGNETOS (37D: Alternators in some internal-combustion engines), 14D: They clean up well (SLEEPERS), and ABIE (54D: "____ Baby" (song from "Hair")) were a bit of a stretch. BUT, it's Saturday, so we can't complain.

1A: Result of a bad trip (FACEPLANT) gets an A. I love the fill, and I love that "flashback" also fits in the same space.

Sorry so cursory. Column will be back tomorrow for more insightful, colorful, and erudite reviews.

Signing off for another month,

- Horace

Friday, April 29, 2016

Friday, April 29, 2016, Andrew Kingsley


Frannie and I are trying to get on the road somewhat quickly today, so I really bore down hard on this puzzle, and luckily, things went my way!

I first got traction in the south with the side-by-side gimmes THERAVEN (58A: 72 of its 108 lines end in "-ore" sounds) and EASYREAD (60A: Book that doesn't require much time or thought). From there, FINLAND (40D: First country in the world with universal suffrage (1906)) took me way too long (I'm half Finn!), but I was still proud when the answer finally came clear. Go Finns!

Overall, this is lovely and clean, with some fun answers. ICYSTARES, HAMSTERWHEEL, PASSIONFRUIT, SLAMPOETRY, JIGSAWS, and JETBLACK are all fine answers. And is this the first time LMAO (36D: "OMG, I'm cracking up!") has been used? I like it!

There's really very little too criticize. There's ETERNE beside SERA, and old Mortimer SNERD, but really, ce n'est pas trop, and there's more than enough good, interesting fill to overpower it. TERCET (56A: Sonnet-ending unit) is tricky both because it's not a common word and it's not commonly used in Shakespearean sonnets. He usually went with couplets, didn't he? But that ASIDE, I let it go because it's "end-of-the-week" fill.

OK, we're hitting the road! Rouen to Rennes today. Here's wishing you all clear roads and easy travel.

- Horace

p.s. 1A: Graveyard hour (FIVEAM) - Could this just have been any hour that falls into a traditional "graveyard shift?" or is there a special hour called "The Graveyard Hour?" If so, I would have expected it to be earlier. In any event, it's not terrible. I'll give it a B-.

p.p.s. One more thing, isn't there a duplication of the 's in the clue and answer of 20A: "What's hangin'?" (SUP)? Odd.