★ Jim Horne summed up today's wonderful solve perfectly: "They had me at PALM FRONDS." I was so stuck in this corner, unable to figure out if it was fans of Jesus, zealots, fans of Pilates? Nope, manual PALM FROND fans from the Biblical days; so brilliant!
A close second was something "sacrificed at the altar." That's sure laden with imagery of ancient sacrifices to the gods. Talk about Biblical! I laughed upon uncovering the wordplay here, some women "sacrificing" their MAIDEN NAME upon getting married.
Caitlin is a rising star, having recently joined the New Yorker's crack squad of themeless constructors, and Erik perhaps the best clue writer on the planet, so my expectations were already high. Yet, they still wowed me. We get a fun SLEEPYHEAD, the evocative SUCKED FACE, BLACK MAGIC with a wicked [Bad spells clue] that hid the plural. There was about an average number of long slots for a themeless, but they used every single one of them so well.
I wonder how newer themeless solvers feel about clues like [Get out of here!] for ESCAPE ROOM. I hitched when first encountering these directive clues years ago, but now I appreciate them more and more.
The one issue I had was the difficulty level of the lower-left corner, which felt ten times harder than the rest of the puzzle. It's a dirty trick to clue RAH as a crowd roar when every solver will auto-fill in OLE. (Have you ever heard a crowd roar RAH?). Along with barely knowing a thing about "Coco" and being unable to identify AC/DC as the singers of "Rock or Bust," even though I'm a fan of the group, my solve nearly ground to a halt.
Even with that corner, though, the entire solving experience was exactly what I want out of a Friday themeless: a load of great long entries, a ton of witty clues, and an elegantly constructed puzzle. Ticks all the boxes.
★ Caitlyn's gridwork is so strong. I struggled with the top corners of the puzzle, but I got into a groove as I continued, encountering so much great fill: ACTIVEWEAR, SARDINE, HOGWASH, HANGNAIL, NIHILISM, SIM CITY, NESSIE. And I had barely broken into the bottom half of the grid!
The good times kept rolling with AA MILNE, CAPITAL O (tricksy!), ZONE OUT, ESKIMO KISS, MINERAL / ANIMAL linked together. This, my friends, is themeless-caliber work. So much sizzle.
I eventually made the connection that CORNER KICKS hinted at rebuses in the four corners. (KICKS is slang for "shoes.") I continued to struggle, though, and the rebus squares weren't that satisfying to uncover. I had a difficult time figuring out why.
Part of the reason was that I don't know shoes that well, so WEDGE didn't come easily. Also, some of the theme phrases felt like they were too specific. PUMP FAKES, for example, is something I know well from being pump faked out of my Reebok pumps on the court, but if you're not a b-ball fan, that might be mystifying even after filling in every square.
Finally, there's something unsatisfying about all the rebus squares being at known locations. Part of the fun (and frustration) of rebuses is finding the sneaky sneakers. When you know exactly where you need to look, it takes away some excitement of discovery.
Overall though, the fantastic gridwork was more than enough to make up for these issues. I debated over giving this one the POW!, especially since Caitlyn's bar has risen so high so quickly (three out of her last four have won POW!s now). In the end, though, I judge a puzzle by how much entertainment it gave me. By that measure, this one was a big winner.
★ Before I found my literary agent, I'd read everything agents said regarding what they were seeking. More often than not, the number one criterion was "voice." (Besides "an NYT bestseller." Thanks, very helpful.) It was incredibly frustrating, considering voice usually got defined as "It's impossible to describe, but I know it when I read it."
Over the years, I've figured out that "voice" relates to how someone's work makes you feel. Does it make you happy? Confused in a great, tense way, wanting to read more? Maybe it even creates electric sparks. It's personal, of course, but the best writers' voices soar above everyone else's.
Caitlin has voice. There's so much distinctive personality built into this puzzle, from the expressive OH MY GOSH to I DON'T HAVE ALL DAY to STINK EYE. Something old (HAIR TONIC), something NEW AGERS, something BLENDED IN, something STAGE CREW.
Apparently, I still don't have voice.
Such fantastic use of her long slots, not a one I didn't like. STRAIGHTS could have been ho-hum, but not with a clever clue. [They're in good hands]? That's poker hands, that is!
Strong technical merit, too. I've appreciated how her prior crosswords have been so carefully built, avoiding crossword glue much more so than other constructors. Need to smooth out a region? Use cheater squares (the black squares in the upper left and lower right), absolutely!
(Note that not all editors are lax about cheater squares, especially those in the grid's corners. Rich Norris at the LAT frowns mightily upon them, for instance.)
(Also note, I'm fine with ADOS as a plural noun and MIROS as in "what did you think of the Miros on display?" I have no problem with IN ON or HAD IT, either, both of which can stand on their own.)
A couple of amazing clues rounded out the exemplary solving experience. My favorite was NOAH as famous for "seeing double." But close behind was the T.REX "bearing small arms."
A sparkling themeless, outstanding in every way. If I were a crossword agent, I'd sign her in an instant.
So few people can make a Sunday 140-word grid with so much sparkle and smoothness. Sticking to six themers (average tends closer to seven) is often a smart choice, and Caitlin took advantage of the flexibility it allowed. Along with smart placement of her long down slots, she exhibited so much care and craftsmanship in filling her product.
I was even more awed when I checked the word count — 138! The sub-140 challenge is something few constructors should ever consider. For someone with only four published NYT puzzles to tackle it, and execute on it with sizzle? Outstanding.
She even threw in a touch of razzle-dazzle, stacking parallel downs in PET PROJECT / SHOE RACK and OH GROW UP / ONION ROLLS. That's not easy to do, at least not without making a compromise (needing one of the long entries to be neutral, or having to use gloopy short fill to hold everything together).
I haven't been this impressed with a newer constructor's gridwork in years.
Fun clues, too. Charging for balloons A POP? OUTLETS as [Powerpoints?]? SHOE RACK made even better by its punny clue, [Sole supporter?]? Playful, entertaining, dynamite.
The theme wasn't interesting, since adding a single letter is an overdone theme concept. Additionally, adding a common letter like R is way too easy, and the meanings in TIME / TIMER and PLUNGE / PLUNGER hardly changed.
But the title did amuse me. (Might have been even more fun for "Talk Like a Pirate Day." ARR we finished, me hearties?) And for the average solver, the easily-gettable theme concept plus so many bonuses within a flawless grid could result in a smooth solve that they can brag about.
★ Every once in a while, a new voice emerges onto the scene, making me sit up a little straighter. It hasn't been since Robyn Weintraub started making her playful themelesses that I've felt this great a disturbance in the Force. I loved today's solving experience, packed with joy and entertainment from start to finish.
Let's start with the feature entry. If you're going to pick a 13-letter seed, you have to make sure it's solid gold — both on its own right and for its cluing potential — because 13-letter seeds often make trouble for the rest of the grid. Caitlin made hers count, SHAM MARRIAGES colorful, and made even better by the clever repurposing of "actors' unions." Brilliant!
I call I GOT DIBS on this puzzle, far from a HARD PASS, a DEAD SEXY solving experience, WINK WINK, PREGGO, CAPISCE? Zero BAD PR on this one.
With a 70-word themeless, I want every long entry to count. ENROLLEE and ATE LUNCH struck me as more neutral, but everything else was an asset. No SOB STORY there; great usage of long slots.
And the clues. ORBS as "round figures"? The DERMIS being "skin deep"? Clever clever, wink wink!
Just a couple of dings, DAT and MARG thankfully minor. I used to be perfectly fine with KOD = KO'D in boxing, but I've heard a good number of complaints about this one, from both solvers and editors. What do editors know, anyway, you might ask, when KO'D is seen all the time in boxing recaps?
Well, they do control publication, so there is that. Thus the reason I lowered the score on KOD a while back.
I'm hoping to see a lot more from Caitlin. I have a feeling we might be lucky enough to be witnessing the emergence of a great new themeless writer.
I never used to understand the allure of FISHing. You sit quietly in a boat for hours on end, with nothing to do? Really?
Now that I have two (very) active toddlers, I'm starting to understand.
I enjoy trying to guess the theme in "what's the connection?" puzzles. I didn't figure it out until I got to REEL, so my a-ha moment was decently delayed. I enjoyed how well-disguised TACKLE was — a SLIDE TACKLE is very different than fishing TACKLE!
Unless fishing is a lot more violent than I thought?
As I analyzed the puzzle, I realized I knew the fact that TACKLE was a fishing term ... but not exactly what it means. Apparently, it's a catch-all term for fishing equipment? This made me enjoy the theme a little less, as it seemed like a redundant answer, given that one example of TACKLE listed in the Wikipedia article is REEL.
Maybe I should stop anally looking everything up and just enjoy puzzles.
Pretty good gridwork, although it's not as smooth as I think a Monday ought to be. NEG MEDO REDDI and CTR aren't bad, but the grid would have been so much elegant if that SW corner had been redone. As much as I liked James GANDOLFINI on "The Sopranos," I have a feeling that there are other alternatives in that slot, facilitating better surrounding fill.
I did appreciate Caitlin's strong work in the north and south though — POTHOLES / I PROMISE and DIET SODA / SLEEPS ON are solid bonuses. With just the prices of ESO and ENDO respectively, that's more like it in terms of trade-offs.
Great debut! Interesting and twisty theme, perfect for a Thursday, where I want all my hard solving work to have a big payoff. DEAD CENTER hints at the word DEAD being in the black square at the center of the puzzle, completing LEFT FOR (DEAD), (DEAD) OR ALIVE, (DEAD)BEAT DAD, KNOCK EM (DEAD). Four snazzy theme phrases!
At first, I didn't notice that ON THE MONEY was also thematic, a synonym for hitting DEAD CENTER. It's not easy to symmetrically interlock LEFT FOR / ON THE MONEY and BEAT DAD / DEAD CENTER. It's rare that the crossword gods smile upon constructors so fortuitously.
It's especially rare, considering how few (DEAD) phrases Caitlin had to choose from. Sure, there are a lot of phrases involving the word DEAD, but how many are exactly 7 + 4 = 11 letters long, with DEAD at the very start or beginning?
I so badly wanted the single DEAD black square to be by itself, not touching any others. It would have been awesome if the other black squares around the middle had formed a quasi-bullseye shape, or been arranged like a shotgun spray. It would have been possible — I was interested enough to lay out a quick grid skeleton — but it would have been much harder to fill well.
Speaking of filling well, REAL SOON / AFRAID SO! LENNON / AA TEAM / MR HYDE! Even TIMBRE and DOODLE helped out. Not as big on SERVED OUT, pretty dull, but FURY ROAD was a NICE IDEA for a movie (and very entertaining!). Not sure FURY ROAD will remain crossworthy 10 years into the future, but it's spicy right now.
Nice job on the short fill, too. I counted a bit of ENS INME and the tough-if-you-don't-know-it AFTRA, but that's solid work, especially considering that the themers interlocked to form an inflexible skeleton.
Well done! Very much looking forward to more from Caitlin.