Thursday, March 23, 2023

Bonus Post: The 2023 Atlantic Mini Oscars Gimmick Appreciation Thread (with answer key)

On Sunday, March 12, The Atlantic ran a puzzle by Caleb Madison which had a dare for the solver at 17-Across: [With 35-Across, group of 10 movies hidden in the previous week of Atlantic minis, two in each puzzle. Can you find them all?]

It's a pretty fun scavenger hunt for a puzzle, one that (owing to the lack of an easy archive for Atlantic puzzles) probably won't have the permanence it deserves. So I'm making this post which easily links to the week of minis in question, so you the solver can play along if you wish to do so.

Monday, March 6 - Tuesday, March 7 - Wednesday, March 8 - Thursday, March 9 - Friday, March 10

If you're stuck on remembering the ten films that were nominated this year, Wikipedia's got your back. (Hey, don't sweat it - I forgot that Elvis was nominated this year, and I *watched* Elvis. Unfortunately.) And if you're really, really stuck beyond that, and just want to appreciate Paolo's subtle (and not-so-subtle) constructions, I'm having this post double as an answer key. Scroll way, way down, below the poster below, if you want confirmation of the answers.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Crossworld Monthly Roundup, February 2023

It's the shortest month of the year, and thus I have an atypically short write-up. I didn't even bother changing the text on the photoshop for this post! (Don't tut-tut me, who do I look like, Kelsey??)

My Favorite Themeless Puzzle of February 2023: The Crossword, Monday, Feb. 20 (Paolo Pasco, New Yorker)
Honorable mention: Free Association 78 (Trent Evans, Grid Therapy)

My Favorite Themed Puzzle of February 2023: To Infinity and Beyond (Elise Corbin, Cruciverbology)
Honorable mention: The Interview (Aaron Ullman, Universal)

My Favorite Clue of February 2023: [What very few are able to pull a one-eighty on?] (4) (Erik Agard, New Yorker Tuesday 2/21/23)

[Source of cracks on a screen?] (6) (Tim Croce, "Freestyle 784")
[Approach to mating] (7) (Will Nediger, "Freestyle")
[Gives an appropriate response to "Would you like to watch the Gossip Girl reboot?"] (6) (Malaika Handa, "Head First")
[One picking up speed] (8) (Brandon Koppy, "Themeless: Extra Sauce")
"Boys do now cry 'Kiss my Parliament,' instead of 'Kiss my ___,'" so great and general a contempt is the Rump come to" (Samuel Pepys)] (4) (Will Nediger, "In Search of Lost Time")
[They say "boo" but not "yay"] (6) (Gary Cee, Universal, "Possessions")
[Stand-alone issue?] (9) (BEQ, "Themeless Monday #710")
[Something pointed out more than once to a fashion designer?] (Croce again, "Freestyle 788")
[Prez dispensers?] (4) (Alexandra Olson, "Novel Issue")

A full list of these puzzles - and entries for these clues - under the jump!

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Crossworld Monthly Roundup, January 2023

Well, let's chat January. I count two dozen brilliant puzzles that came out this month. And I'm not even counting the NYT grid I did with Dan Ziring, nor this super-slick midi I did for Crossword Club with a 9x4 stack that would make Patrick Berry jealous.

My Favorite Themed Puzzle of January 2023: Shh, Be Quiet! (Claire Kaneshiro, The Daily Princetonian)
Honorable mentions:
Looking Forward to the Next Dune Movie? (Elise Corbin, Cruciverbology); Do Stuff (Will Nediger, Bewilderingly)

My Favorite Themeless Puzzle of January 2023: January Stumper (Ada Nicolle, luckystreakxwords)
Honorable mentions:
Look Both Ways (Themeless #16) (Adam Aaronson,; Wednesday, Jan. 18 (Erik Agard, The New Yorker)

My Favorite Mini/Midi Puzzle of January 2023: Lousy Food, Lousy Service (Kavin Pawittranon, Lil AVC X)
Honorable mention: does this look like an apple product to you? (midi) (Steph Brown, A Little Puzzling)

My Favorite Clue of January 2023: [Members-only jacket?] (6) (Brooke Husic, "themeless xxx" - how apt)
Honorable mentions: [Wanted poster?] (10) (Anna Shechtman, "The Crossword, Monday, January 2"); [Want to go?] (9) (Dave Murchie, "Themeless 115"), [Doc consulted for help] (3) (Dave again, "The Right Tool"); [Eco-centric college class, informally?] (10) (Adam Aaronson, NYT 1/7/23); [Experience under one's belt?] (9) (Ryan McCarty, "Secret Snowflake"); [Like blue moons, black sheep, or red steak] (4) (Matt Jones, "Pay Cut")

Longer write-ups on the two dozen standout grids from indies and beyond below the cut (as well as answers for the favorite clues)...


Monday, February 6, 2023

Crossworld Monthly Roundup, December 2022

 Well, this took long enough: I took off during the holidays, but I can tell you that in 2022 I logged 1,788 puzzle solves, plus 85 Atlantic minis, plus 179 New York Times puzzles on my dedicated sheet for that, which means I can put an exact number on the number of grids I solved in 2022, and that number is


Wow! And that number doesn't count most mini puzzles, cryptics and variety puzzles, test solves, or grids I edited! That is a lot of puzzles! I don't have an easy way to add up the amount of time I spent solving grids this year, which is fortunate because I don't want to think about how much of my precious and finite time on this earth was spent disambiguating between AS AM I and SO DO I.

 But let's shout out some of the cool puzzles from December of 2022. This will be a relatively short post, owing to the week or two where I didn't solve anything. But the seven grids I shouted out here are all worth your time, I think.

Dec. 1: Fishy Fishy Dish (themeless) (Henry Josephson, The Chicago Maroon)
I've personally never made a grid with a triple stack of 15s in the center. I've certainly TWO triple stacks of 15s. (Although, I guess you could argue that Themeless 15 on this site comes close, with its 12-letter spanners at the top and bottom.) Either way - you can bet your ass I've never made a puzzle with THREE triple stacks of 15s. They're just too technically demanding, and even when an expert like Liz Gorski takes a stab at it, you end up with the "payoff" of a gazillion four-letter down entries like OMER and ASTA.
So imagine my surprise when I found a genuinely fantastic stacks-on-stacks-on-stacks grid in, of all places, UChicago's student newspaper! Henry Josephson manages to stick eight 15s in a single grid, the weakest of which is solid and the majority of which are super awesome: I mean, any one of GAS STATION SUSHI, THE GREAT RED SPOT, or SPEAK TO A MANAGER would be a killer themeless seed, but this puzzle has all three of them, and crossing SEXIEST MAN ALIVE, no less. And the puzzle neatly sidesteps its OMER-ASTA problem by cluing its gluier fill in ways that are both easy *and* fun, e.g. [Leave no ___ unstoned (spoonerism birds might dislike)] for TERN. Now that's impressive.

The Crossword: Thursday, December 1, 2022 (Patrick Berry, New Yorker)
Hey, have you guys heard of this Patrick Berry guy? I think he's going places...
I mention this grid not because it is (of course) extremely cleanly filled, even by Berry standards, no because it's super-duper easy while still being quite fun - no, I think it's a grid that might lend itself to being swiped by new constructors looking to make a themeless that's smooth to fill while still looking fairly ambitious, what with its four spanners.

Dec. 2: Have It Both Ways (Paul Coulter, Universal)
Have you ever noticed that in the phrase "take part," if you reverse the word "part" then you get "trap," which is a synonym of "take" ? I didn't, but Paul Coulter did, and instead of e-mailing Will Shortz with a great idea for an NPR weekend puzzle, he decided to come up with four more phrases with the same quality. It's impressive to find so many theme entries with such an exacting set of requirements, and all the more impressive that even with five themers this puzzle can get an exciting bonus-laden northeast corner in which CLUCKS crosses IRKSOME and BUCKAROO.

Dec. 3: Casino Royale (Bryant White, Spyscape)
Once again, Bryant White and Spyscape produce an aggressively on-theme grid that really takes advantage of the freedom offered by Amuselabs' applet. Atypical grid size, colored squares, circled letters... but despite all the disparate grid elements there's a surprising level of restraint here, especially given the Vegas theming and panoply of retro pop culture references.
And of course, the impressive theme density here doesn't negatively impact the squeaky-clean fill here at all, plus you've also got great clues like [Misbehaving child in "The Simpsons"?] not for BART but for IMP, and [Side by side?] for AREA (which in this case is literally flanked by themers, making the pun even funnier).

Dec. 10: The Full Spectrum (Elise Corbin, Cruciverbology)
This grid has a rather interesting conceit, one that I'd almost certainly never have figured out on my own. So, like most of Elise's puzzles, this one has a scientific conceit: it's about the frequencies and wavelengths of various types of radiation, all of which have been clued as their frequency in hertz, and which steadily get longer and longer in terms of wavelength as you go south through the grid. What makes this odd is that the entries in the grid ALSO get longer the further down you go in the grid - there are 12 consecutive 3-letter across entries at the top of the grid, and 7-heavy corners at its bottom. I have zero clue if this actually makes for a more fun execution of this theme, nor if I'd ever had understood that aspect of the puzzle without the solution image helpfully explaining it. But it's an interesting experiment, for sure.

Dec. 11: Fringe Film Festival (Evan Birnholz, Washington Post)
I feature a Birnholz grid literally every month here, and every month it's objectively correct to do so - I don't know how Evan does it but he consistently makes a brilliant, dense, layered theme at Sunday size once a week. Anyway, this puzzle has a pretty simple conceit - twelve films with short titles have to be entered outside of the grid for the entries crossing them to make sense. What makes this grid not merely a 21x21 puzzle with theme content along the borders is that all the entries in the grid make sense even without the "fringe films" - e.g., TRON crosses TRAP, ROLE, OPALS, and NESTERS, but RAP, OLE, PALS, and ESTERS are all common crossword entries. And then what makes this grid elegant is that the fringe films... wait for it... spell something out. Namely, THE OUTSIDERS. Mic drop!
The really crazy thing is, if I made a puzzle this good I would retire, but Evan somehow does a puzzle of this quality fifty times a year. Unbelievable.

Dec. 30: America's Finest Crossword Puzzle (Will Eisenberg & Alex Boisvert, Crossword Nexus)
You know, I sometimes wake up and think, "I am so grateful that I get to have the role I have at the crossword that used to run in the back of The Onion." Even as a lot of the satirical landmarks of the '00s have either gone corny (Stephen Colbert's fall from his self-titled silent-T Report to... whatever the hell Tooning Out the News is) or, um, batshit (seriously, is Dave Chappelle okay? what the hell happened there?) the Onion remains really funny to this day. Anyway, this grid is all Onion headline fill-in-the-blanks, anchored by the spanners WOOOOOOO BEARS and AAAAAAGH BEARS. This means the puzzle also serves as a helpful crash course on the last quarter-dumb-century of American life and news pseudo-events - remember Teresa Heinz? Remember the Mueller Report? Etc. And yes, the AREA clue IS an "area man" headline.
(P.S.: I note for your themeless seeding convenience that DRUGS WIN DRUG WAR is a 15.)

A Couple Internet Rabbit Holes I Fell Into Via Post-Puzzle-Solve Googling:
- I'm a big fan of the late Nora Ephron's deadeye satirical skills, and have just discovered one of her final works in that genre: a piece in the New Yorker spoofing Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, titled The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut.
- Speaking of turgid crime fiction, Eugene Francois Vidocq's life story would sound like the premise of a B-tier USA Network drama, if not for the part where it's 100% true and 200+ years old: a thief and con man living a life of petty crime before and after the French Revolution, Vidocq decided to go legit and used his criminal contacts to become a narc par excellence, later founding France's national police ,as well as the world's first detective agency, as well as maybe the entire discipline of forensic science?!? Oh, and he was also the basis for both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Wowzers! Oh, and his name ends in a Q, which means I am definitely putting his name in a puzzle at some point.
- Among the many, many Mexican dishes I have never had is birria, a delicious-sounding stew made from goat meat and allegedly originating from Jalisco. I thought it might be coincidence that the word birria is Spanish for, er, I guess the translation is "crap" or "garbage" or something in that vein. Turns out it isn't; apparently the conquistadores had too many goats, whose meat they considered inedible, so they offloaded the goats onto the natives (who promptly made delicious food out of 'em). Ironically enough, given the contents of birria, the word "birria" is ultimately derived from the Latin for "boar."
- Have you ever wondered what printer toner is and how it differs from ink? I sure have, but I only bothered looking it up this month. Apparently toner isn't a type of ink; it is instead made of plastics that have been ground into a fine powder, which is then applied to a heated sheet of paper during printing by, um, something something lasers, something something magnets. (This is the point where I decided I had better things to do with my life than spend fifteen minutes on the HP website.)
- One of the first and most influential Western fantasy novels is H. Rider Haggard's She: A History of Adventure, generally cited as a direct influence on the likes of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and yet I suspect that like me, many of you have never heard of it. There is a reason for that: Haggard served as a government official in Pretoria during the late 1800s (under the aegis of Henry Bulwer, whose uncle Edward has his own infamous literary pedigree), and She is, by all accounts, a pretty naked endorsement of colonialism and white rule in Africa. The novel's antiheroine/antagonist is the title character, Ayesha a.k.a. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, a 2,000-year-old sorceress who brags about her pure Arab blood or whatever, who is generally regarded more as an allegory for late-Victorian-era anxiety over women's rights than a character in her own right. Ayesha would appear in three more novels, which existed in a shared universe with the serials starring Haggard's more famous hero, Allan Quatermain.
- A slightly less influential British novelist was Louise Rennison, whose career started with a comedy show called "Stevie Wonder Touched My Face" and kept improving title-wise when she became a YA author, starting with the book Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging (1999) and escalating from there. Seriously, look at these titles. She's like Chuck Tingle, if Chuck Tingle books were read by millions of teen girls instead of [THIS SPACE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK BECAUSE NO ONE HAS EVER READ OR ENJOYED A CHUCK TINGLE BOOK, HE IS WESLEY WILLIS FOR TERMINALLY ONLINE GAYS]. Tragically her 2016 death means we will never get to see how she tops the title of the final Georgia Nicolson novel, Are These My Basoomas I See Before Me?
- Unicorns are real! Or were real, anyway: specifically, the Siberian unicorn was a prehistoric species of rhino that weighed four tons and probably evolved into the modern unicorn mythologically (and in reality, because unicorns are real and I love them).
- The 1970s Oakland A's were a baseball powerhouse, with the likes of Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and the aptly-named Rollie Fingers as the core of one the most dominant teams in MLB history, and the only non-Yankees team to win the World Series three years in a row. But they're best known for ushering in the most important development of the '70s - they brought pornstaches to baseball. Reggie Jackson showed up to spring training in 1972 with a mustache, and in an attempt to get the iconoclastic Jackson to shave it off, team owner Charles Finley had several other A's grow facial hair. Whoops - by June of that year literally every member of the Oakland A's had a 'stache, and on Father's Day the A's ran a promotion where if you had a mustache, you got into the game for free. Here is a picture of Rollie Fingers after being traded to the Brewers, predicting hipster fashion by a quarter-century: 


...and that's it! I'll have the January post shortly. Love y'all.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Crossworld Monthly Roundup, November 2022 (also, the future of QVXwordz)

Okay, I was playing coy about this for the past couple weeks, but it's been public for a while now: as of this month, I own Crucinova now. (Or rather, I co-own it with speedsolver Gavin Byrnes.) I've made several grids for Crucinova back when Lisa Bunker was calling the shots, all of which were awesome; this week's puzzle is yet another one of mine, with some sick grid art and a very nice edit courtesy of Will Nediger. Go ahead, give it a spin. (You can get a free trial of Crucinova on the site, if you aren't already subscribed.)

Obviously this is a big step up for me, which I'm sure everyone is excited to see. The issue is, how much time will I want to devote to QVXwordz now that I have an entire crossword outlet all to myself, one where I am producing basically-weekly content? Does my posting schedule (erratic as it currently is) need to shift to accommodate Crucinova's Thursday grid drops? Do I exclusively produce weekly minis at this point? Do I pivot to just posting monthly themelesses a la Husic? How often can I post on QVX without totally burning out on puzzles (since, of course, I still make grids on spec behind the scenes, as well as for Crossword Club)? These are the questions that ran through my brain as we finalized the handover, and I still don't have answers for them.

In any case, I would encourage anyone who's enjoyed QVXwordz' offerings over the past two years to get a Crucinova subscription, if you don't have one already, since that's not merely the best way to get puzzles with the Quiara Touch(tm), but also a pretty solid way to support both me and several indie constructors financially (because constructor rates at Crucinova are directly pegged to the number of subscribers we have). And of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't say, if you are even remotely interested in making grids that are weird and exciting, which stretch the limits of AmuseLabs - for the love of god, reach out to me!! I am working on a new spec sheet for Crucinova to put up on the site in 2023, but for now please just hit me up via e-mail with literally any questions or pitches you have.

Anyway: November was a pretty good month for indies, I'd say. (And maybe for mainstream puzzles too? I'll be honest, I was kind of slacking on mainstream fare this month.) Anyway, let's take a peek at some of my favorite grids of the month. As always, spoilers abound, so consider clicking the links *before* you read my thoughts. Opinions under the cut...

Thursday, November 17, 2022

#41: Strip Poker


[fullscreen] [PDF] [PUZ]
difficulty: medium

Somewhat belated puzzle, as hinted at by the vestiges of Halloween theming. Thanks to Brian Thomas and Will Eisenberg for testing this one!

I've had a lot of irons in the fire (including one that, when I can say it, will be of interest to all of you interested in puzzles bearing my imprint). Well, I had the November 15 Crossword Club puzzle, which was quite good, and due to the vagaries of our publication schedule there I'll also have tomorrow's grid. More excitingly, I also have a puzzle in this month's Lemonade Disco suite, edited by Taylor Johnson. I love Taylor's willingness to arrange these community projects - it's nice to see the return of a bit of the indie spirit that has been sorely missing from crosswords these days, even amidst the Puzzle Boom. Somewhat relatedly, I was not involved with its creation, but I loved this Ocean's Eleven themed cryptic by the Rackenfracker.

OK, puzzle under the cut. Love y'all.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Crossworld Monthly Roundup, October 2022

 I took the past (checks calendar) EIGHT MONTHS!?!?!? off doing these, because they were very time-consuming. So this will be a relatively pared-down offering, just noting grids I found really interesting this month. They are not necessarily my *favorite* grids of the month - just ones that got me thinking. Again, there are spoilers in these write-ups, so if you want to give these a blind solve, don't read beyond the headers, click the link (if available) and go for it.

Oct. 1: Two Little Words (Frisco17, Good Clues for People Who Love Bad Clues)
This puzzle has a really interesting conceit - as the title implies, every clue is exactly two words. We've seen puzzles like this before - Chris Piuma made one with all the clues being fifteen characters, and one of my favorite guest offerings on QVXwordz was Robin Yu's grid where every clue was one word. I think this puzzle is perhaps one of the less satisfying takes on that premise, because it sort of flattens the impact of some of the brilliant concise clues here. For instance, the spanner and likely seed in this (slightly oversized) grid is APPLE BOTTOM JEANS, clued brilliantly as [Low gear?] - but when that's surrounded by entries of the same length you can't quite appreciate what a funny, terse, clever clue that is.
In any case, I don't mean to imply this grid is anything but wonderful: how could I hate a puzzle with a bottom stack of MADAGASCAR / ACE VENTURA / LANA DEL REY? It's just a case where I feel the puzzle was slightly weakened by the gimmick here.

Oct. 2: On a Monday (Dan Schwartz, xwords with babka)
I was going to talk about how the theme here is straightforward, but how it's *tight* and with a cute revealer - but honestly, I think that's burying the lede here, which is that every single clue in this puzzle is just a delight. Unbound by mainstream standards, Dan is able to breathe life into entries that most constructors simply take for granted as necessary glue. Where else would you see Q.E.D. clued as [Mathematics for "there you have it, mofos!"], or a clue shouting out Ludacris's contributions to the 2 Fast 2 Furious soundtrack? Of course, the greatest part of this puzzle is that it comes up with the only OP-ED clue that really gets to the heart of the matter: [With "PAGE," where to find some of the stupidest shit you've ever read in your life] ... I mean, who could argue with that?

Oct. 3: Host Country (Ross Trudeau, Current Magazine)
Current Magazine's... monthly?... crossword puzzle is public media themed, which lends itself to some very niche themes. In this case, we have one of the classic crossword themes - phrases whose first word have been reparsed as people's surnames. You know the type - the one where [Production of Carmen starring actor Chris?] clues ROCK OPERA. This one does that, but with the surnames of public radio hosts, e.g., GROSS INCOME clued as [Take-home for "Fresh Air" host Terry] ... as in Terry GROSS's income, get it? I personally went 2 for 5 on this one; I suspect for a majority of solvers the only name they'll recognize is "This American Life" host Ira, and that's largely a consequence of his first name showing up so often in puzzles.
Fortunately, as you might expect from Ross Trudeau, the puzzle is filled very solidly, with no Naticks or otherwise weird bits, so the floor for enjoyment here is fairly high. But I suspect the average solver here, the one who can only name one NPR host, will find themselves hitting a...


Glass ceiling.


Oct. 4: Getting in Shape (Brian Thomas, Puzzles That Need a Home)
I'm always impressed by grids that maintain two distinct themes simultaneously, as this grid does - it could have easily just had the most obvious of the two themes, just a simple remove-a-letter gimmick, and still be an enjoyable puzzle. But then you realize what the *second* theme here is, and your jaw drops to the floor, because it's a big architectural achievement. Super impressive.

Oct. 4: Let's Bang It Out (Norah Sharpe & Christopher Adams, Norah's Puzzles)
Not much to say here, other than that I'm glad that the indie space exists because there's no way a puzzle like this could be accepted at any mainstream outlet. I don't merely mean the theme here (which, as you can guess from the title, is a sex thing), but rather just the cluing voice. E.g., who else would do a clue with a reference to that shot-for-shot re-enactment of Beyonce's "Countdown" done by a teenage boy in a Snuggie? Will Shortz would never.


October 9, 2022 (Chase Dittrich, The Atlantic)
You know, I've gotten a lot of opportunities to work with new constructors over the past year or so, and I think one of the hallmarks of new constructors' grids is black squares placed in long horizontal streaks in the center of the grid. That usually doesn't result in very fun fill - you end up with a couple very long horizontal entries in the grid, and then a huge snarl of consecutive 3s. So seeing a grid like this in The Atlantic made me very confused, because I wouldn't expect to see a grid like this published in... any outlet, really. There's only 30 across entries in this extra-wide grid, and there are 30 3-letter entries! Whew!
But of course, if you're seeing this grid in The Atlantic, then there must be a great thematic justification for such a weird grid shape, which... sure, I guess there's a good rationale here: the long lines of black are all TUNNELS. Better than that, though, is how good all the long answers are! CATASTROPHE! TOOK THE REINS! PARODY ACCOUNT! Et cetera. But honestly, I think my favorite thing here is that The Atlantic's interface sends you to the next word immediately after you fill in the previous word, so you can blitz through all the 3s in a row. Heh heh.
But yes, this grid theoretically should have been unbearable, so I think it's a testament to Chase Dittrich's talent and Caleb Madison's deft editing that this was so enjoyable.

Oct. 10: How It Started (Rebecca Goldstein, Universal)
I don't know if this is just me not being online enough, and she's actually been getting raves everywhere outside my sphere of crossworld media consumption, so take this with a grain of salt, BUT: I feel like Rebecca Goldstein has mostly eluded the reputation of a crossword "notable," being neither an old-school newspaper regular in the vein of Ed Sessa, C.C. Burnikel, Lynn Lempel, et al, nor an indie puzzle blog "whiz kid" a la myself, Will Eisenberg, Mali Handa, etc. I can't back that claim up, it's just a gut vibe. Anyway - Rebecca rocks, and this puzzle is just the latest in a seemingly weekly string of genius puzzles from her at mainstream outlets over the past couple months. Novel themers like YARN BOMBING abound, tied to the neat revealer ORIGIN STORY - but the puzzle never feels in-your-face with its freshness. Like, it's not beating you over the head with a HEY!!! THIS PUZZLE IS TITLED AFTER A MEME!!! DO YOU GET IT!!! Nothing so overtly modern or radi-k00l. But there's no way to mistake, e.g. the distinctly modernized syntax on a clue like ["This. Always. Happens."] for EVERY TIME. Anyway, Rebecca, you rock. Love you. Please keep making puzzles forever and forever.

Oct. 11: Number of Movies (Barb Lin, Universal)
I am noting this puzzle for two reasons, one about the puzzle itself and one about my truly warped brain.
One: I truly love puzzles like this, where you *think* the theme is something facile, and then the revealer makes you realize that you were actually looking at a much, *much* tighter set than you initially reckoned with. For instance, this set is full of fill-in-the-blank clues whose titles are films with numbers in the title (e.g. [Seven ___] for SAMURAI, [101 ___] for DALMATIANS, [127 ___] for HOURS, etc), which seems basic until you get to the revealer: PRIME VIDEO. Because surprise - they're all prime numbers! Mic drop. So clever. And there are six themers here! Pretty cool.
Two: When filling in this grid, I caught onto the theme and then came to the theme entry [___ 13]. Naturally, I saw this entry and filled in... STALAG. As in, Stalag 13! Everyone remembers William Holden's Oscar-winning performance in Stalag 13! Tom Hanks? Who's that? Also, what do you mean that William Holden was in Stalag 17, not Stalag 13? SMH. Whatever.

He had died while he was drinking; he was no one I had heard of. (OK, he was pretty great in Network!)

Oct. 14: Strings Attached (Will Eisenberg & Christopher Adams, Half-Baked Puzzles)
I'm a big fan of themes which take advantage of weird symmetry and interlocks, and this puzzle delivers. The theme is very straightforward - phrases containing the names of various string instruments, e.g. FRANK VIOLA and BANJO KAZOOIE - but the way that they're arranged around the horizontally symmetrical grid is just beautiful. It kind of looks like a Bible, or maybe like Link's shield in The Legend of Zelda. Or maybe even like a string instrument of some sort, which is quite on-theme. Very cool shape, and of course, very cool clues, even if they're heavier on "sporps" content than I would go.

Oct. 15: Universal Freestyle 42 (Ada Nicolle, Universal)
Ada's talent as a constructor really shines through here, because not everyone is able to have a puzzle where their personality comes through as strongly as this one does in a mainstream outlet. The center stack here starts off beautiful, featuring MIRROR SELFIES and COUNT VON COUNT, but then you worry, hey, what if the last entry doesn't live up to the other two? But the bottom bun of the spanner sandwich, CROSS SECTIONS, which on its face is a neutral entry, is saved with a great clue: [Cuts often made to show off a burrito's contents] !!! What fun. You also have to adore the entries OK I'LL BITE and FUN SPONGE, as well as such charming clues as [TV spot of Sonic telling you not to do drugs, e.g.] for PSA. What a queen. I love Ada so much.


Oct. 17: May I Cut In? (Will Nediger, Bewilderingly)
I don't know how Will Nediger does it - this grid has a brilliant conceit where the revealer, DIVIDING LINES, perfectly bisects four of the six long acrosses at the Is, which serve as "dividing lines" that split them into two other entries - DETERIORATION becomes DETER/ORATION, for instance. An interesting consequence of this is that the theme entries are positioned asymmetrically throughout the grid, but it feels perfectly natural. Typically thoughtful Nediger clues, too.

Oct. 21: All In Love Is Fair (Alex Boisvert & Ben Zimmer, Crossword Nexus)
This is one of those puzzles that's not overtly "indie" theme-wise, but simply could not exist anywhere else but on a blog - the shape, the use of color, the cluing angles... etc. All wonderful. This is the kind of puzzle you could show your mom as proof indie crosswords are wonderful, before she stumbles on a grid where PERIODIC TABLE is clued as [Gold shower?] and makes a strategic retreat back to the Platonic cave of the Times crossword app.

Oct. 22: Brats + Barbary Pirates (Ryan Patrick Smith, Real Puzzling Stuff)
I'm consistently wowed by just how much fresh and interesting fill Ryan is able to get into these 11x11 puzzles, and the super fun cluing angles he comes up with for stock mid-length fill, like [Bar, as the bar might] for ESTOP and - my favorite! - [Authority on baby name data, in brief] for SSA.
This puzzle also deserves notice for its A+ use of profanity, with ABCDEFU in the northwest corner and APESHIT in the southeast. Better yet, APESHIT is next to SGS, with their clues being [Bananas] and [UN top bananas] - it's a nice bit of connection between those two clues (and thus between two corners of the grid) that shows Ryan's attention to detail.

Oct. 23: Ours to Share (Ross Trudeau, Universal Sunday)
This puzzle has quite a conceit: the central entry of the grid is a 7-letter across totally isolated from the rest of the grid by black squares and clued as [(CONFIDENTIAL MATERIAL)], which instantly elicits a "what the hell is going on here?" before you fill in a single square. That WTF moment doesn't ease up until literally the final theme entry, which helpfully tells us that to find out the central entry, you have to look BETWEEN YOU AND ME - as in, at the letters between "U" and "ME" in the theme entries. It just goes to prove that arguably one of the most fertile grounds for exciting Sunday-size puzzles is "metas that spell out the meta for you" - not that you needed proof of that when Evan Birnholz's WaPo grids exist, of course.
But while we're on the subject of veteran constructors, I wonder whether Ross was doing a binge through the Spyscape archives when he conceived of this grid? Because this theme, in which an espionage-themed codeword is isolated from the rest of the grid, and the solver must figure it out via the theme content, has "Bryant White's bimonthly Spyscape puzzle" written all over it. I don't mean to suggest foul play here - after all, the dude's done 85 (!?!?!) different puzzles for them, all of them pretty zany, so I suspect I could find precedent for all sorts of seemingly innovative mainstream puzzles in the Spyscape archives if I tried.

Oct. 24: Themeless Monday #695 (Brendan Emmett Quigley, BEQ)
Hell yes! I'm a big fan of the Biz Quig, as we all know, but I will admit that sometimes his themelesses can have a tiny imperfection or two that makes me hesitate to recommend them to all but the truest crossword heads. Not so here - this is a great themeless with an beautiful shape and lots of lovely terse clues (e.g. [She's always high] for SOPRANO). Plus, it has SHAT in it! Who doesn't love seeing "SHAT" in a grid?

Monday, October 24, 2022 (Joe Rodini, NYT)
I rarely go out of my way to criticize the Times puzzle - plenty of places on the Internet where you can go for analysis of Shortz and co., particularly if you're in the mood for excoriation - but I was especially befuddled by them running this grid. It's not just that the theme is almost identical to a Times puzzle from two years ago, which is bad enough; it's that the theme is identical to a puzzle that was pretty roundly derided for only listing men's names! So much so that several indie puzzlemakers proceeded to clown on the NYT by making a puzzle with the same theme and only having women in it!
And bluntly, it's not a very good theme to begin with - yep, those sure are four dudes with common Spanish names. It's a shame, because the grid here is solid, but the best thing I can say about this theme is that it was nice to see PEDRO PASCAL in a Monday Times. He's a cutie pie!

Oct. 24: puzzle 101 (themeless, kinda) (Ada Nicolle, Luckystreak+)
Among my few regrets in the puzzle space is that I do not subscribe to Ada Nicolle's Patreon, and thus miss out on weekly puzzles of this quality. Luckily she was kind enough to make this one public. It's got pretty weird symmetry - it's actually diagonally symmetrical but it took me until after solving the puzzle to realize it - meant to accommodate the beautifully personal stack of "I AM ADA NOW / THANK YOU / THAT IS ALL." It kind of makes me think of one of those charming Max Kurzman stunt midis where PHOEBE / WALLER / BRIDGE are staggered on top of each other, except that the downs crossing the "I AM ADA" stack are arguably even better than the lovely acrosses - any one of JAY SEAN, DEVIANTART, BAND KIDS, or IF I COULD would be an asset, but having them all running flush against each other?? Damn, girl. We also get clue-of-the-year material in ["Pibbly smicken rogs," e.g.] for GIBBERISH (where's the lie?), and the always-hilarious "PLEASE CLAP" on the opposite end of the grid.

Oct. 26: Monster Mash (Quiara Vasquez, AVCX)
Fuck it, it's my blog and I'll plug my puzzle if I want to, because I genuinely believe this themed puzzle of mine is the best Halloween puzzle that came out this year. Did YOUR Halloween puzzle reference Bruce LaBruce's Otto, or Up With Dead People, the 2008 film which Wikipedia describes as an "epic political-porno-zombie movie" !? Did it!?!?!? Yeah, that's what I thought. I will EAT MY HAT if someone comes up with a better Halloween-themed puzzle than this.

Oct 27: themeless xxvii (ghost type) (Brooke Husic, xwords by a. ladee)
I feel like I could probably just say "this is the best themeless Brooke Husic has ever made" and that would be sufficient explanation. But yes. This puzzle is phenomenal. The triple stack which anchors this puzzle is a thing of beauty (including the A+ clue/entry pair of [Platonic ideal?] for FRIENDSHIP GOALS), but it's also vertically intersected by such phenomental entries as CITIBIKES and ENEMY TURF and TAQUERIAS (clued as [They might drop bomb shells] - god, how brilliant). Even the most painful bits of three-letter glue are clued with thought and care - the down entries are bookended by [Ancient craft] for ARS and [Recent immigrant to the U.S., perhaps (abbr.)] for ELL. A serious contender for the best themeless of the year.


Oct. 28: A.I. (Alex Bosivert & Rose Sloan??, A Crossword Rose)
OK, Alex and Rose didn't actually write this crossword: they had an AI generate the clues for the crossword given access to a clue database. The end result is extremely charming in its hamfistedness: IDA, for instance, gets us the fun and normal clue [muckraking journalist tarbuck or tarbuck]; similarly, C'EST gets us the extremely readable clue [la vie you're contraction before la vie']. Unable to understand that sometimes multiple people have the same name, this grid posits a world where TOM Sawyer is a member of the New England Patriots, and where I.M. PEI was "awarded a maritime prov."
Basically, if you're worried about robots stealing your job... maybe crossword construction is the gig for you!

Oct. 30: Alternative Rock (Evan Birnholz, Washington Post)
(does the meta)
(eats hat)

Oct. 30: Sending a Message (Addison Snell, NYT)
Remember when I said that precedent for every seemingly innovative puzzle idea exists in Bryant White's Spyscape oeuvre? That was what we call foreshadowing. Presented for your approval: June 18, 2021's Spyscape grid, titled "Brewing Up Trouble." Suspicious, suspicious!! J'accuse, Monsieur Snell!!
I'm just kidding. I appreciate what I can only assume was an immense effort that went into making this grid's theme work, and the relative cleanliness of both the cryptogrammed entries and the crosses for them. I'm also mandated to smile at a grid which pays tribute to Alan Turing and the Bletchley Circle, given that the Allied cryptography effort during World War II led to the world's first crossword tournament! (Yes, The Imitation Game took a lot of liberties with the truth, but that detail was, in broad strokes, basically correct!)


Well, that's it for me - did I miss anything? What were your favorite puzzles from this October?