Jeff Chen's "Puzzle of the Week" selections with his commentspow

showing 25 out of 80 POW selections from 3/15/2014 to 8/31/2014

Click the links above to see these puzzles organized by constructor, or to try solving them.

★ Really nice Sunday puzzle, featuring BEST PICTURE WINNERs sounded out through strung together words. I enjoyed sussing out the titles, WARDEN HAIRY PEEPHOLE my favorite. It's too bad the themers weren't clued wackily, as that one could have been hilarious. Since it took me a long time to suss out CHALLAH BOWED HEAVE = ALL ABOUT EVE, here's the list:
  • WAR DENARII PEEP-PULL (about the black market trade, fighting over Easter treats. Or maybe ORDINARY PEOPLE)

Note the wide variety, chosen over a multitude of film eras. Joel picks a couple early ones, a recent winner, and a few scattered in between. Nice that there's something for everyone.

And as I'd expect out of a Joel puzzle, it's expertly crafted. Very little glue, which is so tough to do in a Sunday puzzle, and even harder to do in a 136 word Sunday puzzle. Not many people dip into that range, and very few come out with a puzzle as clean as this. Just a bit of EMAG, OSS, ELEM, ESE kind of stuff is well worth the price of strong fill as DRUG LAWS, WATER RAT, MEL TORME, APPIAN WAY, SEASHELLS, etc.

The sheer volume of good long fill is incredible. Hit the "Analyze" button below the grid to see just how many non-theme long answers he's incorporated. As a point of reference, many Sunday puzzles are successful if they incorporate just two pieces of good long fill. I'm still not quite sure how he made it look so easy, but a big part of it is that Joel was very careful to spread out his white space so not one section was vast and thus hard to fill.

Speaking of ESE, it took me forever to understand the clue even after I finished the puzzle. [Tip of the tongue?] refers to ESE getting added to words to form a dialect, i.e. BROOKLYN becomes BROOKLYNESE. Took me a while, but I like the playful repurposing of a common phrase to add spice to an otherwise blah entry.

★POW Sat 8/23/2014
★ Loved this. Just loved it. Not at all what I expect out of a Saturday puzzle, but I love that too (that's saying a lot, coming from a man who greatly values his routines). I went through the clues once and wrote in exactly zero answers. Momentary freak-out. I almost punted, but I'm so glad I didn't. Enough of the clues sounded odd that something seemed up. There had to be a trick. A Thursday-ish trick on a Saturday! Each clue is indeed missing the letter N (sometimes more than once), producing some great confusion and fun. Big thumbs up.

As Will noted, my favorites were the ones which seemed perfectly normal. [Dramatic cry from people who get subbed] for example made me think about LEAVE ME IN or PLAY ME or something, but it's actually [Dramatic cry from people who get sNubbed]. That's fantastic misdirection. Same goes for the like of [Be-___] which really is [BeN-___].

I did like some of the wacky clues too, like the one for LEIA. But some of them were weaker than others, and a few of those lesser ones gave away the trick for me a little too easily. If each one of the clues had been perfectly normal sounding, I might have added this one to my short list for all-time favorites. Additionally, I wonder if running it on a Saturday was a good thing? I loved the change-up, but I think Will's right about some people grousing about missing out on their Saturday workout.

[Cagey parts, e.g.] to [CagNey parts, e.g.]. [Covert, maybe] to [CoNvert, maybe]. [Covered with slug mud] to [Covered with sluNg mud]. And [Refusal from a boy lass] to [Refusal from a bonny lass]. Dang, I had so much fun solving this well-constructed gem.

★POW Mon 8/11/2014
★ Beautiful puzzle today, almost exactly what I hope for on a Monday. The theme is pretty straightforward — a "H?LL" vowel progression — but it's executed in an elegant way. As David noted, I appreciated the consistency of having each of the themers be a single word. Additionally, so many of them are snappy, words that I wouldn't hesitate to use as fill. HALLELUJAH and HULLABALOO in particular are fun.

Sometimes I wonder what might be considered offensive to certain populations. I had a slight hitch when I saw HILLBILLY — I use the term myself, but it'll be interesting to see if Will gets complaints from people in rural areas. It's been used in other papers before, but this will be the first instance in the NYT. I've had similar thoughts about COMMIE as well. Interesting to think about the seemingly harmless words that carry potentially derogatory meanings.

The grid is near flawless. I worried at first that there wouldn't be as much zing as I usually like to see, because there aren't many long spaces for fill. But David and Bernice take good advantage of the 7's, spreading CATCH ON, I MADE IT, OLD CHAP, and TEE SHOT into the four corners. I love that they didn't try to shoehorn too much into any one corner, because that's often why glue-y fill becomes necessary. This grid is so incredibly smooth. Perhaps the only entry that people might point to is... ELL? But even though I don't hear ELL in everyday usage, it's a real word, so I don't think that's a fair criticism.

It tickles me to see David and Bernice's photos together. So neat to see the different generations work together.

★POW Tue 8/5/2014
★ Wonderful puzzle today. How Lynn found five normal phrases to fit this theme is beyond me. JACKS UP, for example, is such a great base phrase (as in a store jacking up prices), plus it can be read as "Jack's up!" Beautiful idea with five solid themers.

It's also a perfect example of adding pizzazz into a puzzle without having to resort to a lot of long fill. Sure, there's the nice SORE LOSER and BOTTLE FED and BUGABOOS, but what really impresses me is Lynn's careful eye for the shorter stuff. ODD JOB. BREW PUB. JAKARTA. ALADDIN. Putting together a crossword is hard enough that sometimes it feels like a small miracle just to get a grid filled using regular words you can gloss over like… well, like GLOSS. I love it when a constructor grabs hold of each step of the filling process, carefully sorting through many options before landing on opulent words… like… like MAGI.

I like to eyeball a grid even before I start solving, and it's almost always a good sign to see white space apportioned out like this. There's nothing too big (making for a challenging fill) or too small (sectioned off areas can make for a choppy solving experience). Just right. At 78 words it hits the maximum allowed number of answers, but that matters not one bit to me. Using 76 or even 74 words can often allow for some really nice long fill, but Lynn shows that you can give a quality solving experience in 78 words too. It just takes more care, which she clearly put in here.

Finally, look how smooth the short fill is. So little to even point out. OLEO is an outdated product, but you do still see the word on some dairy aisle boxes. And NEHI may be a brand gone by the wayside, but I have fond memories of Radar O'Reilly drinking Grape Nehis on M*A*S*H. Outstanding work; bravo.

★POW Fri 8/1/2014
★ I love days like this. Sometimes I have to dig a little to uncover the assets of a crossword — almost every puzzle has something to admire in it — but sometimes there's goodness everywhere I look. It's a true joy to write about a puzzle when I enjoyed it as much as today's.

I'll go back to my personal system of analytics to take measure of this puzzle. First, the ASSETS:


An astonishing 18. More typically, I usually count about 12 in an average NYT themeless. Now, let's evaluate the LIABILITIES:

  • OISE
  • WSW
  • ENS

Judgment of what's an ASSET and what's a LIABILITY is completely subjective of course (some might argue that RESTATE isn't great, but I hear about companies restating earnings all the time).

So how does the puzzle hold up? We have fewer than five LIABILITIES, and ASSETS minus LIABILITIES = 14 (much higher than my threshold of 10), so this puzzle easily crosses my thresholds. Not surprising, considering how much fun I had solving this bad boy.

Not to say that it's perfect — very few puzzles are. For me, the biggest issue was the slash in the middle of the puzzle tending to create a two mini-puzzle solving experience. It wasn't a serious problem, but it did hinder the puzzle's solving flow for me. I've used a similar effect before, because it makes puzzle construction easier. One of the biggest challenges in themeless creation is working with interlocking areas, where one change ripples through the puzzle. If you can section off your puzzle into separate pieces, it makes construction much easier.

Well done; such a pleasurable solving experience for me today.

★POW Thu 7/24/2014
★ It took me a long time to figure out what was going on here, but what a neat moment when it clicked. I didn't know the song PAINT IT BLACK, but that didn't take away too much from my solving experience. Once I got over that hump of figuring out the first IT themer, it all fell into place. Great concept.

I couldn't visualize how David put this together! So I reconstructed his puzzle skeleton, which helped me understand much better. It's actually a 72-word grid with crossing themers, a really tough puzzle to pull off. To get this to work, and on a debut puzzle no less... super impressive.

I might have liked the revealer to be placed in the horizontal direction, which is easy to do by "flipping" the puzzle about a line from the NW to the SE (any crossword can be flipped like this and still have all the answers read correctly). For me, it would have been so nice to have the puzzle flipped like this, so that the revealer had been in the usual location. I'm so used to having most revealers running horizontally, located somewhere around the bottom of the puzzle. I'm such a creature of habit.

When I construct, I always look for the most constrained and/or biggest chunk of space I need to fill. Notice how the north and south, with their 6x3 chunks and the themers bordering them, stick out? That's where I'd typically start filling, as they'd be among the hardest parts to fill, if not the hardest. The rest of the puzzle is quite smooth, darn impressive given the 72-word nature of it and the crossing themers, so it was a bit unfortunate that ECARTE reared its ugly head right off the bat, and in the south we get SDI (which Will has mentioned that he's on the verge of not allowing anymore), OSH, TAVI, and the crossing I got wrong, PETER TOSH / SOLANO. I expect to not get a lot of pop music references, but I'm from California and hadn't heard of SOLANO. I don't think I'll be the only solver to have issues there.

All in all, an impressive debut. Great idea and pretty darn good execution.

★POW Mon 7/14/2014
★ A fun theme, a great reason for a "word hidden within phrases" type puzzle. This theme type gets done often, so to have a fun addition like these "eerie encounters" was really enjoyable. I would have LOVED to see the UFOs "land," but I personally found that nearly impossible to pull off (as I'll explain in the final paragraph).

A nice construction today, one with few glue entries. I really appreciate that on Mondays, where I feel it's so important to be friendly to a novice NYT crossword-solving audience. It's nice to get in good long fill like SCALENE, PAGE LAYOUT, FOGHORN, but even nicer to only have a few bits of A DIME, IS IN. Welcoming to a newer solver. It's clear that MaryEllen took care in filling her grid, and the extra effort is much appreciated.

I used to think MITRE and OCULI "aren't Monday words," but my philosophy has shifted over time. Being the crossword for an educated NYT audience, I believe it's acceptable to have semi-esoteric words if the crossings are all fair. And some would argue that the MITRE (the Pope's hat, for example) is something the NYT audience ought to know.

OCULI is tougher — if you don't know Mauna LOA, you might be in trouble. I think this is the one problematic spot of the puzzle. Note how OCULI crosses three themers? Nothing else can fit the O?U?I pattern. So I'd prefer to see the four themers spread out more, which would allow for more black squares separating them, and thus more flexibility in filling. It would likely mean that the long across fill (PAGE LAYOUT and CONFINED TO) would need to be broken up, but I don't mind that, since I found it to be inelegant for those answers to be almost as long as the themers.

Finally, I'm sure friends will ask me if it bothers me that I had a very similar theme in the LAT back in late 2011. (Answers at C.C.'s Crossword Corner site.) The answer is no. Two constructors come up with similar or even identical ideas all the time. The database is great for checking to make sure your theme hasn't been done before in non-NYT outlets, but it usually lags a few months behind, so I bet MaryEllen wouldn't have found my themers in a search when she was constructing hers. Additionally, there is some overlap between NYT and LAT solvers, but they're largely different audiences.

The truth is out there!

★ What a perfect title for this clever idea. Self-evident, indeed! I'm impressed that Tom was able to come up wtih so many snappy phrases that fit the pattern. The Yogi Berra quote in the middle sings, and how could you hate HATERS GONNA HATE? But the real topper is the quote from Gertrude Stein represented in a repeating circular pattern in the center. So many levels of delight today.

In just four published puzzles, I've picked two of Tom's as Puzzles of the Week now. Not bad sir, not bad at all. As Jim and I discussed, Tom's a constructor to watch. I've enjoyed my correspondence with him — seems like he has the right attitude: humble and willing to listen, learn and drive himself to improve. Hoping to see a lot more from him.

Liz Gorski's rebus interpretation of the Stein quote was another fun one. I appreciate Tom's new interpretation, taking things a step further.

Another thing I admired about this puzzle was its scientific tone. It's not going to RESONATE well with everyone, but I personally enjoyed seeing ENTROPY, LIGAND, and TITRATES in there, triggering good memories of college chem and physics classes. I bet it will trigger shudders for others, but you can't satisfy everyone. HATERS GONNA HATE, as they say.

I did wonder if this would have made a better weekday puzzle. A 21x can get a bit tedious to solve if there's not some factor that forces it to use an oversize grid. A visual element often does that for me. Grid art is another reason I find compelling. For me, the best Sunday puzzles are those that absolutely, positively, cannot be done in a normal 15x. All in all, I thought it was really nice to get all those snappy theme answers today, but it did get (pun intended) a little repetitive.

Neat idea, well laid out (great spacing between his themers and the central element), some strong, smooth fill and cluing, and a neat visual element. A winner of a Sunday in my book.

★POW Fri 7/4/2014
★ I pity the poor fools who have puzzles near Patrick Berry. (Cue the sad violins.) Some thoughtful readers have told me that they don't like the fact that I pick a Puzzle of the Week, and I appreciate that feedback. But 1.) I like pointing out fantastic work and 2.) that's what some (many?) daily solvers tend to do anyway. For me, it's a good reminder that there are other people out there with much, much better construction skills than me, and if I want to be one of the greats, I need to keep working at it by studying, practicing, improving.

This PB was no different, giving me such unadulterated pleasure. So instead of qualitatively analyzing the puzzle as per my usual, I'm going to do something different: attempting to QUANTIFY why this work is so good.

People often ask me how they can get a themeless puzzle into the NYT, so I've given this a lot of thought. I've come up with a formula that I'll revise and evolve over time, hopefully keeping it simple enough for the non-mathy types. As a finance guy most recently, I liken the evaluation process to the decision whether or not to acquire a company. You buy something for its ASSETS, ignore the neutral stuff, and discount for its LIABILITIES. You can then put a price on ASSETS minus LIABILITIES, yeah? (Roughly.) For me, I think the odds of an acceptance become high when:

  1. LIABILITIES < 5 and
  2. ASSETS minus LIABILITIES > 10.

What do I mean by ASSETS? Stuff that sings. This is subjective, of course, but here's my assessment of the snappy answers Patrick provides us today, each of which I'll count as one point each:


And the liabilities? Things like partials, abbreviations, esoteric foreign words, pluralized names, etc. Each one will count as one point, except for "puzzle-killers," ug-ug-ugly answers which effectively take a puzzle out of consideration all by itself (RSI, for example, which killed one of my themeless submissions). Here's my assessment of Patrick's liabilities today:

  • (insert sound of crickets)

The final count: ASSETS = 15, LIABILITIES = 0. So, Patrick meets the first criteria with flying colors. And the second criteria? ASSETS minus LIABILITIES = 15. As an analyst, I'd put a STRONG BUY recommendation on this one. (Never mind the fact that there's no price already set, you smart-aleck broker/analyst types.)

Will, if you're reading this, perhaps you could comment? Am I close in my assessment methodology or way off?

It's a thing of beauty, especially considering it's a wide-open 66-worder. (That's another point in the ASSETS column, actually.) And the cluing for IRISH PUB, ESCARGOT, BIPED, POT... For all those constructors looking to get published in the NYT, I'd suggest studying this one in detail. Try deconstructing and reconstructing it to see what you can learn through the process. Many of the great artists copied the masters for years before finally coming into their own, and that process was key to their emergence, right? Well done, Patrick, another beauty from the master.

★POW Wed 6/25/2014
★ So many strong puzzles this week, but this one stood out for me. How do I decide these things? No doubt, it is subjective (Jim and I often differ on which puzzle we like the best for any given week). I really liked the previous two puzzles and also think there are a couple more humdingers coming up this week. So I relied on gut instinct, giving great weight to the feeling of immense pleasure I got as I solved this puzzle.

I had the pleasure of meeting Patrick two American Crossword Tournament Puzzles ago, where he had authored a devious construction that tripped up many solvers. Today's is much more straightforward, three grid-spanning entries containing "LESS" and re-interpreted with funny results. Sense of humor is hit and miss (just ask my poor wife) but these three all made me laugh. Each one of them is a strong base phrase, and I thought each of the re-interpretations was clever.

People might complain that there are only three theme answers. This was certainly the norm ten years ago, so it did seem like a throwback at first. But when it comes to "wacky" puzzles (themers designed to generate a laugh) I'd much rather have three strong line-drives than two homers, a base on balls, and a batter hit by pitch. I'm not sure what that last one really means in terms of crossword answers, but I can think of a few "wacky" themers I've winced at in the past.

And look what freedom the fewer than normal number of themers opens up. Patrick, the consummate professional constructor, takes full advantage of it, giving us three pairs of long downs, all great: GREEK MYTH / SLAPSTICK, LEGOLAND / BUS ROUTE, THE DUDE / OBSCENE. And if that wasn't enough, he grabs hold of two six-letter entries to give us MRS WHO and NO SALT. Along with CT SCAN and OH BOY worked into the grid, that's the way to jazz up a puzzle.

Like any puzzle, it's not perfect, at least in this ultra-picky constructor's eyes. Those west and east sections get highly constrained considering the SLAPSTICK / CT SCAN borders on the east, for example. I'm not a big fan of ENGS, as I've preferred to call myself an ENGR. So perhaps I would have preferred SKI instead of ABE and ASEA instead of ADDS, turning ENGS into INGA. But that's a matter of personal taste. In the west, seeing OST bugged me. I like some foreign words if they're relatively common, but OST and ANGE and ESEL (a Germanl donkey) strike me as quite inelegant. There are other options there, why not use them? Of course, this is also subjective — I'm sure there are German scholars who will be writing in.

Finally, as if I didn't already admire the puzzle enough, two clues that sparkled. [Round one] had to be some sort of boxing-related answer? Nope — FATSO! Hopefully that word itself won't offend people, but it's a perfect misdirectional clue for one exhibiting an ovoidal nature. And to start a puzzle with [Breather] which just had to be REST was devious. I loved figuring out that I was totally wrong, LUNG indeed being a type of "breather."

Wednesdays can be hard, straddling the line between being relatively accessible and relatively clever. This puzzle does it really well.

★POW Thu 6/19/2014
★ Man oh man do I love visual grid elements! Such a beautiful question mark made out of black squares; what a cool graphic. This grid doesn't display normal crossword symmetry (or any, for that matter) but I don't give a hoot about that, because the visual is so stunning. Well done!

TWENTY QUESTIONS is a really nice entry for the theme. And I believe there are twenty question, although I got a little tired of counting at around three, so I'll trust that it adds up. As Bill Clinton said, it's just arithmetic. All that counting made me TOO TIRED TO THINK. So I suppose that's kind of thematic?

Generally it played like a themeless, which was a nice change of pace for a Thursday. I typically seek out the crazy, twisty type of puzzle on Thursdays, the ones that break your brain as you struggle to figure out what the heck is going on (and then gasp when you find out the insanity in the creator's head). But I know that's not everyone's preference, and lots of people love themelesses, so this will be especially good for them.

Like with most themeless puzzles, there's a huge amount of solid long stuff. EROTIC ART, SPIT AND POLISH, CONTORTIONIST, and my favorite, CUE STICKS. That last one was made even better with a brilliant clue, referring to the opening break of a pool game. Love, love, love that kind of cluing!

And also as with most themeless puzzles, there are such big open white spaces that there will be some compromises. Inside the question mark was my first guess as to where we'd see a little crunchiness, but Tim actually does amazingly well there. NEAPS isn't pretty, but it's a single glue entry that enables the snazz of GRANDPARENTS, THIN AS A RAIL, CAN IT BE, etc. Really impressed with the care he put into that section.

I was a little surprised to see the blips pop up in the NW and NE corners. There was enough of the APER / ALAR, ISSA, PREX kind of stuff that I almost wish Tim had broken up POWER LINE and MONETIZES to give us a net of two more words with a cleaner overall fill. Tough though — it is a treat for the eyes to see such big open areas on the sides of the puzzle. And I do love the word MONETIZES. It's so "Shark Tank," my favorite show on TV.

Overall, I love the amazing visual spectacle of the grid. Perhaps some untapped potential, although I'm not sure how more thematic material could have been incorporated. A memorable piece of grid art, to be sure.

★POW Mon 6/9/2014
★ This puzzle delighted me. It's pretty rare that we see shenanigans on a Monday, because Will tries to keep early-week puzzles fairly accessible for the NYT solving population. So it's a real treat to get a fun theme like this, easy enough for most solvers to pick up on but clever enough to be memorable. Very well done.

A few months ago, I started to realize that I was letting my constructor's brain take over my daily analysis, going robotically through to figure out what could have been done better. Things changed when there was a puzzle I thought had too many compromises, but which Jim didn't mind because it "delighted him." That made me revisit my criteria on what makes a puzzle "good." Puzzles are a fun thing for me, and elevating that "delight factor" (DF) as my number one criteria has also elevated my puzzling joy. So to see a theme like this, where WIDE RECEIVER is interpreted as [T e l e p h o n e h a n d s e t] = great pleasure for me. All four of these themers really did it for me, and to have STRETCHED OUT as both a themer AND a revealer = brilliant.

That's not to say my constructor's mentality ever turns off (darn you, stupid brain!). I couldn't help but notice that there wasn't as much in terms of long fill as there could have been. It was interesting to read Tom's note to that regard. OLD STYLE and SPLENDID are indeed very good entries, as are MAJESTY and RICHTER, but it would have been splendid indeed if Tom had managed to work in another pair of 8's.

And there's really not much that's glue-y in this grid. Pretty well polished. But as I recently told a co-constructor, I have a hard time with "good enough" fill, always (OCD-like) trying for the absolute best possible. So seeing A TRIP, which could have been ATRIA (and possibly allowed for MY EYE! where HYENA is) made me pause. In general, I expect 78-word puzzles to have almost perfect fill, unless the theme density or other constraints necessitate otherwise.

So a well executed puzzle, with a pinch of unfulfilled potential. Knowing that Tom's a CS guy, I have a feeling he'll be upping his game as his constructor career rises.

Overall, I return to what's really important: DF = high.

ADDED NOTE: I corresponded with Tom about that east section, and it turns out he missed that possible improvement because he did this grid by hand. Wow! My first grid by hand was a complete disaster, including the wild entry SUN SON (it sounded like "a thing" at the time). One big advantage of computer-aided design is finding and improving these little sections is much quicker than doing so by hand.

★POW Sun 6/8/2014STRIKE ONE
★ Such a pleasure to open up a puzzle and see Patrick Berry's byline. I know I'll get at the very least a smooth, fun solving experience, and it can easily go all the way up to five-star incredulity. I especially like seeing his byline on a Sunday puzzle, as I personally tend to need a little something extra in order to keep my attention through the entire solve (one of his Sundays from 2008 is among my very favorite crosswords of all time). I got that today, a clever theme involving the crossing out of letters which doubles as the letter X.

The "replace-a-letter" and "add-a-letter" and "subtract-a-letter" type themes are still fine as long as they produce humorous resulting themers, but I so very much appreciate Patrick's desire to push the envelope. This could have easily been "change a C to an X" type theme for example, but he goes above and beyond to find themers which have a nice base (SMILEY FACES) as well as a funny outcome (SMILEY FAXES). And the X doubling as a "strikeout" in the clue is a pretty cool idea.

I would have liked the crossing answers to display an equal propensity to change (with funny results) when X'ed, though. I found it slightly unsatisfying that TIC didn't become TIX, for example. That would have been much harder to accomplish, perhaps having themers cross? Anyway, could just be a personal desire. Even without that extra layer I still quite enjoyed the solve, because...

Patrick always does such a fine job of filling his grids. Sundays are notoriously difficult to smoothly fill, but he both incorporates strong long fill and minimizes his glue-type entries. You might think the latter is achieved through brute force, auto-fill, whatever, but it's often determined very early on, when the constructors fixes their initial skeleton of black squares. With certain arrangements, you're almost never going to get "good fill," so figuring out that initial skeleton is 75% of the work. Patrick always does a great job of maximizing his spacing, and in this case (10 themers!) it's even more impressive that he has very few highly constrained spots in his grid.

That other 25%... check out the NE and SW corners. To have triple-stacked 8's with TWO themers running through each is no small feat. It is helpful that he can swap LESSER APES with BODY DOUBLE (same with THE ART OF WAR and SKIP TO MY LOU) and I'll bet he tried the permutations to figure out which would give smoother fills. He doesn't incorporate many Scrabbly letters, but I'd much rather see clean fill instead of hiccups caused by a J/Q/X/Z. The resulting corners are clean as a whistle, with just a MLLE and an OCT in total.

Finally, the clues. A puzzle can be ultra-smooth but still suffer if the clues are drab (or too dictionary-ish). This is especially important in a Sunday, where a half-dozen great clues can greatly enhance a puzzle. [Sucker?] for VAMPIRE. The clue for I'M FINE evoking images of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" ("tis only a flesh wound!"). [Raised on books?] for EMBOSSED. And the beautiful [Give a piece to] for arm ("piece" being slang for gun). The clues made my solving experience even better.

All in all, a wonderful solve.

ADDED NOTE: I can't believe I missed this. The crossed out letters spell CROSSED OUT. So, so, SO cool! And forget what I said about being able to swap out LESSER APES and BODY DOUBLE — making those NE and SW corners even more impressive!

★POW Wed 5/28/2014
★ A really nice change of pace today, a hugely ambitious grid that delivered a quality solving experience for me. A collection of "adjective as an animal" similes, Tim not only packs in seven strong ones, but does so in a 72-word grid that gives us additional long fill and mostly clean short fill. Quite a fun experience for me, both to solve and to admire as a constructor.

It's easy as a constructor to fall back upon standard methodology in grid design (or even just use grids out of a grid library), so I really like seeing constructors push boundaries. I'm not sure I would have ever come up with the same grid design as Tim, especially considering how he carefully packed everything in. Some crossings will be natural given the simple theme — themers crossed through part of the "AS A" is a natural way to do that — but look how Tim crosses FAT AS A COW and BALD AS A COOT and SLY AS A FOX. Very cool.

And with seven themers, it's altogether too easy to call it good once you can fit them all in. So I really like the extra step, squeezing in BASS ALE over LOCAL PUB and TRASHBIN and ART DECO, all nice answers. As I go back and study this grid, I still have a hard time wrapping my head around how Tim managed to get everything so tightly packed. It's a Tetris-like solution.

There are blips here and there, not surprising due to the level-ridiculous constraints. BIG AS A WHALE overlapping BUSY AS A BEE is naturally going to be problematic, for instance. The ?HS?? pattern is not particularly friendly, so the OH SAY partial is one of the only options there. Our crossword monkey friend ABU shows up too, but that's an impressively low number of glue entries. Tim's work in the west section is remarkably clean, only UGA raising an eyebrow, at least until I remembered how cutely ugly the UGA bulldog mascot is.

Not a mind-blowing theme, but a great example of how to pull something off with panache.

★POW Sat 5/24/2014
★ Ah, I love seeing Peter Wentz's name on a crossword byline. He has a great sense for what's colorful in a grid — a difficult concept for many constructors to develop. Almost all of his themeless puzzles manage to work in a snazzy set of entries, and some of them are as close to my perfect ideal as I've seen. This one from 2012 is on my personal list of all-time favorites.

I really appreciate how Peter isn't okay with resting on his laurels, but instead pushes his envelope. The best part of XWord Info for me is corresponding with all the constructors, and I absolutely love when someone comments about striving for growth. Even better is when that impulse is spurred on by the desire to give the solver a better quality product. So seeing Peter's notes about trying for four quality "seed" entries did it for me.

This grid has its minor flaws, the SNO / FRA / ESL kind of stuff (TEC doesn't bug me at all), but look at the goodness that it allows for. The center in itself is fantastic, NOODLED AROUND being such a fun, colloquial phrase. Thirteen letter entries are often very difficult to incorporate in both themed and themeless puzzles, so it's neat to get this treat. Having it sandwiched by THE WHO SELL OUT and JIMMY SWAGGART was both fun and a funny juxtaposition. JIMMY SWAGGART NOODLED AROUND... I need say no more.

Grids with 13-13-13 (or similar) middle arrangements can be a little dry, as that can stop up many puzzles with the heavy constraints. Peter deploys his black squares wisely though, isolating the SW and NE corners so they can be filled with strong stuff, same goes for the NW and SE. Segmenting one's grid to work with subsections often makes filling much easier.

Oh yeah — there was THE WOMB. I didn't care at all for that entry, which opens the door for just about any THE ___ entry, i.e. THE BOOK, THE PEAR, THE DOOR. I'm a big fan of entries that can stand by themselves like THE STAND (Stephen King's book), but I'd prefer to show THE WOMB THE DOOR.

Finally, two clues I loved. [Round stopper, for short] had me thinking about bathtub plugs, the ace of clubs (defensive "stoppers" are very important in contract bridge no trump contracts), even food items that stop you up. Ahem. I've said too much. Great misdirection from the real answer... a boxing round. And [Merrie Melodies sheepdog] may seem like a pedestrian clue to many , but for me it brought back fond memories of Sam and Ralph, the sheepdog and coyote, clocking in and out of their "day jobs."

Very nice work today. G'night, SAM. G'night, Ralph.

★POW Sat 5/17/2014
★ Loved this one; right in my personal wheelhouse. A pinch of culture, a dash of history, add some devilishly clever clues, finish it off with one of my personal heroes, BRUCE LEE, and you have a Jeff Chen special. I'd make a Kato / POW! joke here but that would be just too easy.

Brad, who is soon taking over the helm at the Chronicle of Higher Education's crossword, is as exacting and detailed with today's puzzle as ever. The construction itself is quite nice, with an artist I didn't know but should have, PAOLO VERONESE, straight across the middle. That's flanked by CAMEL CAVALRY, an awesome term in itself, and CAMERA TRIPOD, an already good entry made even better by the misdirectional [Stand for a photo]. I considered answers to the effect of STRIKE A POSE and PUT ON UGLY SWEATERS TO TAKE A FAMILY PHOTO AT JC PENNEY before getting it. Lovely that it didn't even need the telltale question mark, which would have given away some of the cleverness.

This type of arrangement, with central marquee answers (an 11-13-11 with two crossing 12's!), can often mean that the corners of the puzzle suffer. Not today. I absolutely love the NE corner, with the aforementioned BRUCE LEE next to BUGBEARS and SNEER AT. Reminds me of the way BRUCE LEE used to SNEER AT opponents before beating the living *@#$@#& out of them.

Once in a while, I tremble at Brad's byline, because I know there will be an entry or two that I don't know, or a piece of trivia that I just can't get without figuring out every cross. But today I really enjoyed working to pull out the pirate LAFITTE from my cobwebs, and actually being able to work out the beautiful LUCK BE A LADY from the clue. Sometimes the puzzle gets you, but today, I got the puzzle. Neat feeling.

There are few bits that I didn't care for, OREM and OTB always make me shrug, for example. But other that than, Brad keeps the grid amazingly clean. I wonder if people will gripe about FTLBS, but for me, I really liked it. Granted, I'm an engineer by education and it was a very common sight when I was practicing. And no one would ever write it out as "foot pounds" (we engineers like our efficiency). A rare example where I like the abbreviation much better than the full answer in a crossword grid.

Finally, [Group living at zero latitude?]. Beautiful. I knew something fishy was going on, what with the question mark, but what a clever repurposing of "latitude," nothing to do with geographic position but everything to do with level of strictness. Bravo!

★POW Thu 5/8/2014
★ I'm pretty sure the "Jerry Maguire" line "You had me at hello" should have been "You had me a logic problem." Matthew indeed earns the POW with a nice implementation of a typical paradox. Usually seen as THIS STATEMENT IS FALSE, it's made into a crossword-appropriate set of statements, cross-referencing each other. I really like how he got the lengths to work out perfectly, without having to make the statements sound tortured. NINE DOWN IS FALSE and THREE DOWN IS TRUE, that's beautiful stuff.

With just three theme entries today (and one of them only 7 letters long), the puzzle did feel a little light. I was glad then to see Matthew utilize his long answer slots wisely. Check out COWGIRL, UNDERDOG, PA SYSTEM, LOST SOUL, SO AND SO, even X AND Y. It went a long way to making me feel like I was getting my money's worth from the puzzle. I also appreciated that Matthew took care in his fill, leaving us with few enough glue entries that I didn't particularly notice an excess. Now that I look at grid again, I do notice NCO and CTR straight across the top which is unfortunate, but there's really very little ugliness here. He even throws us two X's and a Z without torturing those areas. Nice.

I would complain about SNORERS, but 50% of my household is a SNORER. Ahem. It might be me; not saying. Throw in that my favorite Pokemon is the Snorlax (or as my poor wife calls me, "The Snormax")...

I probably have said too much.

One item that caught my attention is probably something no one else would even consider, so I feel a little silly for bringing it up. A puzzle like this, involving logic and symmetry, to me begs for left-right symmetry. Especially considering all the black squares on the perimeter are already set up that way, just a few blocks could have been switched around to make a mirror symmetry arrangement. Granted, I'm partial to that type of symmetry in the first place, but it felt to me like it would have been spot-on for this exercise in logic.

Another thought that cropped up was that it would have been nice to have this puzzle a bit more complicated, as are many logic puzzles. Then again, the best paradoxes are those that are simply stated.

Finally, I'll end with a great clue: [Places for mobiles] made me think about where people need cell phones, and it took me the longest time to figure out that it wasn't referring to mobile phones but actual mobiles (hanging over many cribs).

Nice fill, really fun theme, a winner in my book. That last statement is indeed not false.

★POW Sat 5/3/2014
★ Beautiful work today out of the SAY HEY KID himself, Sam, one of the prodigies of the crossworld. Talk about a tough construction today. Sam starts where most themeless constructors finish, with two sets of triple-stacked 8's and two set of 10's. Then he connects the 8's across the middle of the grid. And then uses two more long answers to connect that central answer to the 10's. Finally, he throws in a couple more 7's and 8's to boot! And with such snazzy results, the overall pa-pow is impressive.

What's really outstanding about this puzzle is how effectively Sam manages to use his long spots. Everything from MAKES A MESS to TOP HONORS to SLAM DANCED to SAY HEY KID, such awesome answers in the corners. But it doesn't stop there — ALASKAN KING CRAB across the middle? MURDER INC, one of my favorite entries in recent memory as a connector? Out of 17 (!) slots for 8+ long entries, I really liked (or loved) 13 of them, and the other four were fine. A really impressive hit rate.

And the cluing. As with any strong Saturday, I expect a handful of clues that push me one way and give a great a-ha when I finally find my footing. [Bond film?] was really nice ("bond" as in glue, not "Bond" as in "Bond, James Bond"), [One hanging by a thread?] made me think of SPIDERS or TRUANTS or something, so TASSEL provided me a smile.

This puzzle is not going to be for everyone, as some hold the opinion that any puzzle with a handful of GLUE entries cannot be stellar. I'd certainly agree that I'd prefer not to have ODO, ABAA, and especially A POSE (DIETZ I'm still on the fence about), but I find these well worth the price for the TEAPOT DOME / BABA O'RILEY / BOY SOPRANO / ABOUT THAT snazziness.

My one hesitation, and it was big enough that I waffled whether or not to give this the POW, was the clue for ALASKAN KING CRAB. Sometimes I feel like a clue is trying too hard, or comes off too cutesy, or in this case, a bit creepy. I'm all for fun or funny innuendo, but there was something icky to me about the juxtaposition of "luscious legs" and eating crab legs (perhaps it evoked an image of George Costanza (from "Seinfeld") mixing his favorite pleasures?). Even the "long, luscious legs" phrase made my skin crawl a bit. Surely others will laugh at this clue, but I bet there will be others like me that were uncomfortable with this language. It's too bad that it was at the centerpiece entry.

ADDED NOTE: I had an enlightening conversation with Jim, who thought the aforementioned clue was fantastic. It's always eye-opening when I hear an opinion so different from mine — nice to get the reminder that most everything in art is subjective.

Overall, I thought this puzzle was dynamite. TOP HONORS to Sam this week.

★POW Sat 4/26/2014
★ An absolute beauty from Evan, exactly on my personal wavelength, giving me everything I want out of a Saturday puzzle. This gives me the perfect opportunity to lay out what I personally look for in a Saturday puzzle.

1.) Sparkling entries. CALVIN AND HOBBES, RETROVIRUS, WIFESWAP, SKYBOX SEATS, PROTEST VOTE, BELT SANDER, MELON BALLS, RACE CARD, HOW DARE YOU! Need I say more? No, but I will. It's awfully difficult to get your shorter entries to shine, but OK BUT is fantastic. It's like when Brendan Emmitt Quigley debuted WHAT THE. Genius stuff.

2.) Brilliant clues. Misdirectional clues are my personal favorite, especially ones which don't have the giveaway question mark. [Fashion clothes] led me to think about YSL, IZOD, etc., but it's the simple SEW. [Mann's "Man!"] plays on the "man's man" phrase with amusing results. And I absolutely loved [Elasticity studier's subj.], as it made me feel smart to know a piece of esoteric trivia. Finally, thinking about Dana Carvey doing his impressions of PEROT on SNL made me laugh out loud. This puzzle manages to hit all the sweet spots in cluing.

3.) Quality short fill. Often the hardest criteria to manage, it's near impossible to get away without a handful of ugly entries. Layout often dictates where the tough places will be (I personally spend about as much time working with a puzzle skeleton as I do with filling), and Evan does a great job with spacing. Note how there aren't any big sections of white space that stick out? Sometimes it's pretty easy to predict where the problem spots will be, but not today. Evan's deployed his black squares masterfully, spreading out the difficult spots. Sure, he's got a WTS here, a A WAR there, but those little bits are so dispersed, I hardly noticed them.

Extremely well done. Not just a pleasure to solve, but a pleasure to review.

★POW Tue 4/15/2014
★ Gary hit my sweet spot today, throwing his fastball waist-high and straight down the middle, serving me up one to smash over the left field fence. (Well, over the shortstop's head anyway. Maybe ten years ago...) I'm not a huge baseball fan, but I don't have to be to really enjoy this puzzle.

I appreciate a good a-ha moment. The best kind is when I don't have any idea what's going on while solving, and everything snaps to at the end. It's very difficult to do this on a Monday or a Tuesday puzzle, because anything too tricky is going to escape the more novice solvers. And often when I get to the end of an early-week puzzle, it turns out to be a slight variation on a well-trafficked theme type. Today's was perfect for me, four pitches HIGH, INSIDE, LOW, and OUTSIDE which when taken together give a BASE ON BALLS (the technical term for a walk). Very nice — snappy phrases all hiding their theme material until the very end.

I also like some meat in a puzzle's fill, and Gary doesn't disappoint. He uses a traditional placement of two long downs, and both of them are really nice: DOGGIE BAG which is a great entry in itself, and MARSEILLE, classing up the joint with its reference to the classic work of literature, "The Count of Monte Cristo." Throw in some other nice shorter stuff like TIDBIT, ORCHARD, and VERDI, and that satisfies my desire in this arena. Sure, I like to have more than that if possible (ideally at least two sets of long downs), but not if it comes at the price of quality fill.

And Gary does a nice job in that arena of shorter fill. I didn't notice anything glaring as I solved, giving a clean, flowing feel to the puzzle. When I went back, I did pick up ORLON, which is so much less commonly used in everyday language than NYLON or RAYON (Google all of them to see hits), but that was really it. Some people will complain about PRECIS, but it's a common enough term in academia and certain professions. Maybe others will complain about LUMEN, but it's an extremely common term in engineering and photography (I would go on and on about the difference between luminous flux and radiant flux, but you've already fallen asleep). I think both are well worth learning if they were unfamiliar to any solvers.

Well done, Gary! I didn't want to give yet another Tuesday puzzle the POW! (this will make four Tuesdays in a row) but I thought this one hit all the right notes for what a Tuesday should be.

★POW Tue 4/8/2014
★ Another highly polished piece of work from one of the masters. Five theme answers, all common three-word admonitions with IT in the middle, interpreted in wacky ways. It's especially nice that they're all clued as "That's enough!" to a specific type of person. My favorite was KEEP IT DOWN to a hot-dog eating contestants, as it hits on my fascination with competitive eating. There's a sport-specific term called a "reversal" which I won't go into.

Where Ian really makes a name for himself as a constructor is his ability to jam-pack snazzy fill into a puzzle with clean overall results. With five medium-length themers, many constructors would call it good to have simply one pair of long downs. Ian's moved way past that point, giving us GAS STOVE, SEES FIT, CREW TEAM with its fun clue, APE SUIT. And that's just in two of the corners!

Because the central entry is an "inconvenient length" (it sort of splits the grid into an upper and a lower half), it forces open white spaces in the NE and SW. As anyone who's tried to fill a moderate-size chunk of crossword grid knows, it's not easy to do with quality. Sure, it's a simple thing to fill a subsection so that it works, but it's another matter completely to do it without a single blemish. With only a single glue-y answer (CHA) to hold it all together, Ian still manages to work in EXACTA, TEN HUT, ECOLAW. Ian even rescues CHA with a really fun clue.

How does he do it, you might ask? Some people assume that constructors just hit a button and let the computer do the work for them. Some constructors actually do that, but the auto-fill process almost always spits out subpar fill. I've had the pleasure of working with Ian on a few grids, so I've seen that he takes a significant amount of time with every grid he makes, trying out multiple layouts, testing out dozens of possibilities in the critical junctions to figure out what will help him fill cleanly. From there, it's a matter of trial and error guided by hundreds of puzzles worth of grid-building experience to produce a clean result.

What's most impressive is Ian's track record of consistency. Whenever I see his name on a byline, I know I'm going to get a fun theme with more than a handful of long fill and a minimum of cruddy answers. This puzzle is no different, especially difficult given that the best Tuesday puzzles are smooth enough for relative beginners but interesting enough for more experienced solvers. I tip my hat to you, sir!

★POW Tue 4/1/2014
★ I cannot resist the allure of the Schrodinger puzzle. It's so cool when there are two answers which work equally well. Sometimes one answer is more tortured than the other, but most all of them today are very nice. A prime example of a home run is FISH and FIST, both of which are landed by a hook (a FISH by a fishhook and a FIST by a right hook). Very clever clue for both!

These types of squares are very difficult to pull off, so it's even more impressive that Andrew was able to incorporate so many of them. Thirteen answers are affected, with eight squares needing to work with duality. Just getting one or two to work well is hard enough, so tossing in a huge handful is incredibly impressive.

And given the theme density, I would expect the fill to suffer greatly. Not only does Andrew need to work around the themers BEST THREE / OUT OF FIVE, but he has to place five "coins" throughout the grid. Each of those "coins" requires two answers to be placed (one across, one down), and a set of intersecting across/down answers generally makes for tough constraints. When you have five of them, you're asking for trouble.

As if that wasn't enough, there's the HEADS/TAILS in the center, making the entire puzzle heavily constrained. Sure, there are a few bits like AMBI, SKAT, and OST (all in the NW area), but the grid is remarkably clean. I wondered if Andrew could have gotten rid of the OST and AMI by placing the first coin in the SW corner instead of the NW? That SW corner feels much less constrained and ripe for a "coin," although this would require a different set of dual-working answers than ISH/IST and GUSH/GUST due to length requirements.

And yes, the grid is too segmented for my taste (the entire NW and SE can be sectioned off by adding just one set of black squares, which breaks up the flow of the puzzle), but I'll happily take that sort of thing when the payoff is good enough.

My final reaction: at first I felt like there was almost a little too much going on. What with all the coins and the answer in the middle and the theme answer telling me BEST THREE OF FIVE, I wasn't sure what to look at first. I started to overthink it all, brainstorming how nice it would have been to make it some sort of predictive magic trick, or to tie the central answer to the coins themselves somehow. And then I decided to just sit back and enjoy it.

Neat idea, and a grid executed with obvious care and devotion to clean fill. Much appreciated by this solver!

★POW Tue 3/25/2014
★ Tuesday is a hard slot to fill. It's supposed to be a relatively easy puzzle, so no tricky themes will fly. This makes it awfully difficult to create something interesting enough to satisfy both experienced solvers as well as be okay for relative newbies. Often, that means you get a product that is straddling the line, sort of making both sides happy, but not really addressing either party's need. Tough challenge!

So I really like today's offering. The theme is not complicated, in fact, it feels slightly thin to me given the revealer takes up two of the four long entries. But it does its job, giving two nice examples of sports terminology related to not giving up until the end. It would have been really nice to have a football-related one in there to cover the major sports (fine, Howard Barkin and the Canadian contingent, maybe a hockey one too!).

FYI, a BUZZER BEATER is when a basketball team wins a game at the last second (just beating the game-ending buzzer). A WALK-OFF HOMER is when a guy (or woman) homers in the bottom of the ninth inning (or in the bottom of an extra inning) to end the game. And as Jim pointed out to me, it's awfully nice that a WALK-OFF HOMER always happens in front of a home crowd.

(shaking my fist at stupid Kirk Gibson for beating my A's)

Where I think this puzzle shines is in the fill. Yes, there are some rough patches (I see you, ENISLE/GRE/SSR corner), but David does such a nice job of filling out the grid with long stuff (SHISHKEBAB and RICHARD III), along with Scrabbly goodness (ZAFTIG, FLOOZY, JOGGER), and new words I enjoyed picking up (XYLEM, RABAT, MANOLO; nice that they're from such different areas of knowledge). It took me longer than usual to finish this puzzle, but I enjoyed that extra duration, savoring all the fun entries like SCRUFF and its clue, HAREM and the fact that "Scheherazade" looks so crazy in the clue.

This puzzle won't do much for the non-sports fans in the audience, of course. I wonder if there would be a way to do this theme such that the themers are from different areas? Like themes related to cat-and-mouse detective stories? Or presidential elections (DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN)?

Anyway, fun to toss around ideas. I appreciated that David did something kind of different with a Tuesday, making it a very fun outing for me.

★POW Sun 3/23/2014BRIGHT IDEAS
★ Beautiful puzzle today, everything I personally like to see in a Sunday-size grid: nice theme answers, strong, clean fill, and a visual element. Plus, an inspirational message! Often, I get a little worn-out by a 21x21 crossword puzzle, but this one kept me delighted from start to end. Doesn't hurt that I just saw Ian at the ACPT and had a drink with him, really enjoying chatting about crossword construction as always. Nothing better than talking shop with fellow constructors.

Except if Will is paying, of course.

One aspect I thought Ian did very well was in capturing elements of many different types of puzzles. Quote puzzles by themselves tend to be on the dull side (unless the quote is spectacularly funny or insightful), but not only does Ian restrict the quote part to three entries, he ties it in with the puzzle's visual. I had to work to uncover the quote, and it was totally worth it.

It's also neat when a constructor's personality and interests shine through. Ian is a sports guy, so seeing beautiful long entries like NFC SOUTH, CHICAGO BULLS, and my hometown THE NINERS was a pleasure. Some may accuse him of making the long fill too sports-oriented, but it's not like he's used TOLEDO MUDHENS or the TACOMA RAINIERS. Come on, it's THE NINERS, people! Grumble grumble, stupid play calling / decision making at the end of last year's NFC championship game, grumble grumble.

It did take me a little while to figure out the AHA MOMENT running around the light bulb, because I skipped the notepad (those just tend to seem superfluous) and tried to read it from the lower left corner going clockwise. It's the natural thing to do, right? Getting an OMAHA TNE wasn't quite doing it for me though, so I begrudgingly went back and read the notepad. Fine, I'll follow directions!

As with all of Ian's stuff, the fill is so smooth. He's the one who got me on a kick against partials, especially five-letter ones. It's amazing how much good stuff he packed in while avoiding ugly stuff, just some short NNE, CIR, ADE, SOC, ULT, OLEO kind of filler, barely noticable (I had to go back and search it out). I totally agree with his use of cheater squares in the middle row of the puzzle (before SEAL and after IDOS), which I'm sure made those sections smoother. That section above SEAL (where FEDORAS is) I'm sure would have been crunchier if not for that cheater square.

Can't say enough good stuff about this puzzle!

★POW Sat 3/15/2014
★ This puzzle was right up my alley. A pretty standard-ish layout with 70 words, but jam-packed with great entries, from the classic HOLMESIAN all the way to the fantastic up-to-date TWITTER JAIL. For those of you not on Twitter, users are limited in their number of tweets per hour and per day, and those that go over (thus annoying the crud out of their followers) get put in TWITTER JAIL. Neat term. And for those of you who think it's impossible to go over 100/tweets an hour, someone I know recently got put in TWITTER JAIL after the explosion around her book deal. Amusing that she had to ask a friend to post that she wanted to respond to each tweet but couldn't.

When I first started choosing Puzzle of the Week selections, I thought I would tend to select more Thursdays, because I like when constructors break the rules. But I've come to realize that I really appreciate Saturdays, especially the fact that the constructors and Will really up their ante when it comes to cleverness of clues. I really enjoyed the clue echo of [A line, e.g.], and [A lines, e.g.], neither of which had to do with the A-line dress.

Even the clues for some of the shorter ones: [How the description of most things usually end?] was very clever for EST, in the sense of clever, cleverer, and cleverEST. Nice to interpret the word "most" in an unexpected way.

Typically ULEE is not something I like to see in a grid, but when it's combined with BEEKEEPER ("Ulee's Gold" is a crossword classic due to the friendly nature of the ULEE pattern) I like the echo as well as the insider's nod to the crosswordy bit.

The only hitch I had was at the AUDIE / AARE crossing, but thankfully I've seen the AARE river enough in crosswords that it's nearly automatic (again, very crossword-friendly combination of letters). And from a construction standpoint, I love MUTANTS, but I wonder if a pair of cheater squares where the S is (and symmetrically the T of TAMARIN) would have allowed for a smoothing out of TBAR, RELET, and ARPEL all in the same little section. I love TAMARIN as an answer though, so the trade-off would have to be pretty good.

Saving my favorite for last, the answer and clue pair for KISSY FACE was great. "Smacked" had me thinking it was something offensive which would initiate a slap, and even when I got the KISS pat of the answer, it took me a while to see KISSY FACE. All in all, a really nice grid with some feature entries and more than a handful of wordplay clues. Beautiful stuff.