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Puzzles for May, 2016
with Jeff Chen comments

View these same grids with comments from:
Constructor (24)Jeff Chen (31)Jim Horne (5)Hide comments
POW Sun 5/1/2016 STELLAR WORK
FORAGETORIDISGUSTS
AMULETPAWEDOCEANMAP
CABLECHANNELDERRIERE
THYMUGGLESFAROESE
SASHPOLIORIPOPEN
LOKIPEALRIGHTSIDE
UNITEDAIRLINESTKOS
TAPENADESCEDARGRIST
EMPLOYERDEANICEIDEA
PIECIENTOLURK
BROKEREDASETTLEMENT
PUMAODESSAEIN
NADERISMAFTKEROSENE
AVERTHOMIEGETANEDGE
MIRAROMEOANDJULIET
EDMCMAHONSUMPASAN
RODENTSTEAMSHGTV
HALIDESELASTICHIE
EGOTISTSACTINGCAREER
MRMISTERSEEMSOCULUS
POACHERSHYPESTEPPE

★ The first thing I noticed was that a incredibly wide-open grid, so I checked how many words it was. When I counted only 130 words, a nearly record-breaking stat, I worried. Joel and Byron are two of the best in the business, but people can't just pull off the impossible. Even they would have to resort to plenty of crossword glue, making for a clunky solve.

STARZ ... or *Z!

I didn't get very far very fast in my solve. I kept on looking for a revealer to help me figure out why answers were starred. It got frustrating when I couldn't break into so many of the huge swaths of white space.

But the click finally happened ... and what a click! The starred clues aren't really starred … they represent the word STAR. (STAR)Z is a CABLE CHANNEL, for example, and (STAR)ted talks = BROKERED A SETTLEMENT. Great concept. I remember similar-ish theme ideas, but this one felt fresh.

Even better, all of their theme answers were phrases in the language. Sometimes with themes like this, you might see things like EMCEE MCMAHON (instead of the normal ED MCMAHON) — entries sounding like dictionary definitions. I love that Joel and Byron took the care to make their entire grid appear as if it were just a normal crossword.

And the theme clues! Each one looked so normal that they kept me totally in the dark. My favorite was [*Z, for one], which made me think about a letter, a chemical symbol, a physics particle. STARZ to *Z is brilliant.

Finally, to do all that in 130 words … just astounding. Sometimes I hem and haw about some of Byron's entries sounding made up, but only OPERA CRITIC sounded a bit funny (are there such specialists these days?). RUBY SLIPPER, UNION STRIKE, NADERISM (think Ralph Nader), all great stuff.

PAUL PIERCE will be tough for some, but the crossings were chosen with care to make him gettable. And what a great story: a top prospect falling all the way to the number 10 pick of the 1998 draft, then dedicating his career to making all the GMs who passed him up rue their decision (almost all of them did).

There was one rough patch I didn't care for: the NE corner, with its concentration of SPEE/SMEE and the GARRET/FAROESE crossing. I couldn't actually finish the puzzle because of that corner. But I can overlook one small region because of all the goodness Joel and Byron worked in.

Mon 5/2/2016
PEPSIAFROANDS
AVIANSOPHLEAH
TESLAPRIMETIME
AWAITYVONNE
RHYMESCHEMESSN
LOOIESLYNX
EWWKAPUTSYNCS
SIZEMETOOZOLA
SEALYDANKETAU
FORAENDSIT
ABAWELCOMEHOME
BIGWIGAROMA
BLAMEGAMEIRONY
IBIDIDEOEMCEE
EONSESOSSATAN

ME TOO interpreted as "me two," i.e. two instances of ME within a single phrase. I bet there are a ton of phrases exhibiting this property, so I like that Paula tightened things up; two-word phrases where both word ends in ME. Also nice is that she managed to get two rhyming pairs and two non-rhyming pairs. How's that for a RHYME SCHEME!

The Hobbit holes look pretty lousy up close, but still, it's cool that they built them right into hills!

I often like Paula's choice of short to mid-length fill, and today is no exception. YOWZA, KAPUT, and DHARMA are all great choices. Some might say that DHARMA isn't "Monday fill," but I don't buy that argument. As long as all the crossings are gettable — and they are — most any real word ought to be fair game.

Although I'm a big fan of both counterculture and the Lord of the Rings, that SW corner was a little troubling for me. I know ABA from seeing it all the time in crosswords, but I don't know that it's something I'd expect a beginning solver, even a generally educated person, to know. It should be no problem for regular solvers and for those of us who've visited the set of LotR in New Zealand and stuck our heads through hobbit hole windows and reenacted scenes for so long that we were politely asked to leave. Ahem. But I fear that crossing is setting up some novices for failure.

OKEMO crossing DANKE seems more fair to me, since the song "Danke Schoen" is pretty famous. IN A WEEK was the only other thing that made me hitch — it sounds too much like a partial, or something arbitrary, for my taste.

But some nice theme phrases and a fun play on ME TOO.

Tue 5/3/2016
ABEDABAFTABCS
LEVIRIDERLOUT
BEESMOOLAEZRA
ABRAHAMSLINCOLN
GENENUT
HARRISONSFORD
RAZEDREEFOUT
CITEPICOTBABE
ATELEDACORAL
ICHIROSSUZUKI
YESONAN
FREDDIESMERCURY
REARARUBAETAL
OSSONIMESRAGE
STYXSCORESHAM

Nice finds, famous people whose last names are car makes, getting an additional S to form possessives. I wasn't sure what was going on when I uncovered ABRAHAM'S LINCOLN — I thought that might relate to some sort of train? — but it all became clear upon solving HARRISON'S FORD. Being a Seattleite, I enjoyed seeing the great ICHIRO SUZUKI get his due … more or less.

ICHIRO'S classic sleeve tug

I like that John pushed himself, going down to 74 words. With a theme-dense 15/13/13/15 arrangement, many constructors would just go up to 78 words, the max allowed. But John works in bonus long material such as PERSIANS, TRAIN SET, BOUNCERS, as well as some mid-length goodness like ARMANI, BIOMES, HYDROX. I much appreciated getting a lift through some of these bonuses.

Generally a pretty clean grid, too, although starting the puzzle with ABED and ABAFT wouldn't be my preference. (ABED = an odd way to say "in bed," ABAFT a pretty niche term.) It's too bad, since the rest of the puzzle contains only minor blips like TEL, OSSO, ON AN. That top left corner sets the tone for me, so I started my solve with not the greatest of impressions. Luckily, the bonuses and pretty smooth solve helped correct that first impression.

Well, except for ["Hey ___" (casual greeting)]. What an odd clue.

I really liked a few clues, CURL getting elevated with a clever [Permanent thing?], i.e. part of a perm. And probably the best fill in the puzzle, TRAIN SET, got a bit of a groaner in [Something to keep track of?]. That last one felt pretty stretchy to me, but I admire the effort.

It's tough to find a neat and tidy set like these four themers, fitting so nicely into crossword symmetry. Fun to see.

POW Wed 5/4/2016
LISZTANITASAN
INTOOLONGFELLOW
STIRSINFILTRATE
PREACHSOFIARRS
SOSAOUTCLIME
LIFERKITBAG
TAMEORUEASELS
PELEISOMEROLLA
BATTENIOSONLY
ARARATDRAIN
SMOREMUSEALT
ITOTRACIMUSTER
MANZANILLAPOLIO
FITZGERALDOFALL
NEZTENSENASAL

★ Jacob's name is rising even higher in my list of constructors whose bylines I love seeing. He has a distinctly poetic voice, and it's again seen in spades with this poem (appropriately enough). So neat that each of the seven words of INTO EACH LIFE SOME RAIN MUST FALL is exactly four letters. There's something evocative and powerful about the sentence itself, and something so elegant about the four-letter consistency.

Jill frowns upon me growing such a magnificent beard. Boo!

The grid is a 16x15, wider than normal, to accommodate the "hidden" poem and LONGFELLOW / FITZGERALD. I'm a huge jazz fan, but I wasn't aware that Ella Fitzgerald sang this tune. Beautiful; I'm glad to learn about it.

Many constructors would go over the 78-word limit when faced with a 16x15, reasoning that they should be allowed a proportionally higher limit. I like Jacob's choice to stay relatively low in word count, which lets him work in a ton of good fill like ALARM BELL, NOT REALLY, TEAR STAIN, RUMOR MILLS.

No doubt, with all the theme words stairstepping down the diagonal, plus LONGFELLOW and FITZGERALD, plus all the long bonus fill, there was bound to be some gluey fill. AOUT (pretty deep French), HOI (only one way to clue it), and ORU (do Oral Roberts students actually call it ORU?) are necessary to hold that dense middle together. But I like that Jacob kept everything minor, spreading out his GSA, RRS, AIRE short stuff throughout the grid.

One other nit: I wasn't a huge fan of "hiding" the poem's words within longer entries. EACH in PREACH is nice, as is MUST in MUSTER, but LIFE in LIFER isn't really disguising it at all. And making IN TOO and OF ALL necessary … I'd rather have seen each of the theme words simply as a normal entry in the grid.

Personal preference. Overall, this was another Stulberg winner for me. I'm not much of a poetry fan, but somehow Jacob inspires me to want to dig in.

Thu 5/5/2016
TATEBIBSINDC
ROSIEACREDEER
BLACKSHEEPTAME
IINSTALETAROT
TFALAMAZINGGR
YESESANIONANO
GASDENBLAU
ARIETTARIPLEYS
DERROLDCEO
JLOAVERSTOTAL
INTHEHOLEDEMI
NEWELOPERARIB
TSARJULESVERNE
TORNASETISOUR
ONESMETSVERS

ACEs hidden IN THE HOLEs (see below for a visual representation). I like that David separated the four "holes" from any other black squares — if they had been connected to others, that would have made them look less hole-like. That was important to Ellen and me when we did our FIRE IN THE HOLE a while back.

LIBER(ACE) in all his finest

Fun to find those ACES, AMAZING GRACE the best of the bunch for me. I almost always enjoy uncovering rebus-like strings when they're part of a colorful phrase. (ACE)TATE, VERS(ACE), LIBER(ACE), ADJ(ACE)NT TO are all fine entries, though I don't get nearly the same rush as I did upon figuring out that the odd AMAZINGGR string should actually be parsed into AMAZING GRACE.

Tough to fill a puzzle with both snazziness and cleanliness once so many crossing theme entries get fixed into place. Notice how each theme pair seriously constrains a corner. Those big SW and NE areas are especially tough to work with once you fix ADJACENT TO/ACE IN THE HOLE and AMAZING GRACE/CRETACEOUS in place. I like bonus material such as IRONWARE and DEMORNAY. DERR and ANO/BLAU … not so much.

The other corners are tough, too, since fixing those intersecting perimeter answers into place puts heavy constraints on the adjacent fill. I love BLACK SHEEP and JULES VERNE as long fill. I don't love IIN, EEKs, STA, or IS OUR crossing ESE. They're all reasonable trade-offs, but they keep the puzzle from being outstandingly-filled in my eyes.

I'm curious to see how the NYT digital team is going to represent this one. I was a little disappointed that the print version didn't change those four special black squares into black circles, or at least round off the corners. Would have been fun and different.

Fri 5/6/2016
CARDCATALOG
GAMEOFTHRONES
GOTINTOHOTWATER
LASSOESUSSTATE
OTCTSP
SEALABSITSLATE
SENEGALSATINON
ARNOBRAT
CJCREGGNOGUCHI
HARNESSSTEPHEN
AGAIRE
SUNDOWNPLANFOR
MAKETHEBESTOFIT
RECRIMINATION
DOAGOODTURN

Fun to get a change of pace in a figure-eight grid. Solving it was a bit like completing a lap on a racing track.

Given that Julian only left himself six long slots to work with, it was important to use those to his best advantage. Great triple in CARD CATALOG/GAME OF THRONES/GOT INTO HOT WATER. And MAKE THE BEST OF IT/DO A GOOD TURN were nice too. RECRIMINATION isn't bad, but I wouldn't classify it as an asset — it feels a bit less interesting than the other five. Still, five out of six is pretty darn good.

Apparently CCH Pounder was supposed to get this role. Boo, Hollywood!

There are a ton of 7-letter entries to work with, and Julian does pull some extra bonuses out of those slots. I particularly liked the hard to parse ones, like CAT SCAN, US STATE, SUNDOWN (which I was sure was ___NOON). I also enjoyed learning more about NOGUCHI, whose name (but not work) I recognized.

I wasn't as big a fan of CJ CREGG. I'm sure "The West Wing" fans will enjoy seeing her name in the NYT crossword, but it was a lot of work to piece together ([Tally] = AGREE, in the form of "make sure the votes tally up") with little payoff for this non-viewer. I do like the crazy CJCR start though, and I really appreciate Julian's efforts to make every crossing very gettable. Made me want to read up on the character — turns out she's quite a complex person.

It's tough to make any triple-stack both snazzy and clean, and the longer the entries get, the harder that task is. Julian does end up with some ATH, ON AT and OTRA, but that's not too shabby considering he's working with very long entries. Those sets of three black squares in each of the four corners makes the task hugely easier — wise choice to employ them. They also give the puzzle a really pretty aesthetic, without making it look like too much of the grid was eaten away.

Sat 5/7/2016
PONIARDSMACPRO
IMONFIREUPROAR
SIGHTGAGSTARVE
ATOESMELTFOAL
ARMARABTUGS
THREADSLETSSEE
OHENRYTANS
WHATSNEWWITHYOU
HALOCREEPS
MARRYMEREADSTO
AQUAINTOPOW
DUMBCARDSNEMO
RIBBEDAMERICAN
INLIEUCASHSALE
DOESSOINSOMNIA

I tend to like themeless puzzles featuring a single, stellar grid-spanner across the middle. The impact of WHAT'S NEW WITH YOU is high, and it doesn't stress the grid nearly as much as a triple-stack or even a double-stack of grid-spanners. A nice way to introduce a new 15-letter entry.

I can't believe I used to love this show

I also liked the feature entries intersecting WHAT'S NEW WITH YOU — MUST BE NICE (sigh) and DYNAMIC DUO are great selections. Along with a couple of other nice long entries like SIGHT GAG, IM ON FIRE, HEDONISM, the skeleton of the grid bursts with color.

I would have liked more sizzling entries, though. The NW and SE corners feature triple-stacks, but PONIARDS, AMERICAN, CASH SALE aren't that interesting to me. INSOMNIA carries a beautiful clue: [A good cure for it is sleep, per W.C. Fields], echoing the Marx Bros. wit in the opposite corner, so that does elevate it.

It's tough enough to put together any clean and colorful triple-stack, even when they're only eight letters long, and it becomes even harder when you run a long entry through it. When you run two entries through — and they're next to each other, like HEDONISM and YES WE CAN — it's almost a guarantee that some of your long slots won't turn into great assets.

It's a tricky balance of trying to cram in a ton of long slots vs. converting all those slots into sizzling material. We also see other signs of that stress in the SE corner, with ONEA and SESS holding the stack together. Along with some HHH, EES (electrical engineers), A TOE, DOES SO, the level of glue is right at my personal threshold.

New short or mid-length entries can delight me, and trying to figure out MAC PRO was entertaining. I'm not sure if it has legs, like the IPAD, or if it'll go the way of the POWER PC or EMAC. But for now, it was really fun to struggle with the odd MACP?? pattern.

Sun 5/8/2016 TRAPPED MOISTURE
SAGESHADAJARFAST
ATRIABITESUREINTER
SWORNAGRASLICESERVE
HAWEDCHANGEYOURHWAYS
ARTCHOORATTRIOWET
HMAINCOURSESKIM
KARATETOSSWOWSCALE
REMIDRANKDIDITITIS
ORONOANASONATANSEC
FINELINEDOGGYHBAG
TEEINCMOLESNOBJAS
HOTHWIRESTOOLBELT
SOSORUINEDIRRYOWIE
ABETOSLINROASTAINT
DINEREENSEWNHORSES
SLURGOODASGOLDH
EYESEASBRRIERELAB
SALTHOFTHEEARTHANITA
THEHUSTLERFAIRNADAL
HOSEREEROTROYNEALS
OSOSROANSENASYLA

David uses WATER in one direction to form kooky theme phrases, and HHO (a representation of H20) in normal crossing entries. As a whole, the themers weren't quite kooky enough for my taste, but I did enjoy the image of Republicans saying "He's as GOOD AS GOLDWATER!"

Doesn't this look like it should have a LOLcat caption?

It was also fun to uncover some of the long HHO entries. Loved that most of them spanned across two words, making it even trickier to suss out that odd HHO string. GROWTH HORMONE and JEWISH HOLIDAY were particularly nice.

Some of the long fill was new to me, like SAND CAT and SLICE SERVE. But they're definitely legit, and they were fun to learn about. They didn't give me the same rush as uncovering the snazzy HIGH OCTANE or THE HUSTLER, but they still work just fine. And I bet there will be tennis fans who love seeing SLICE SERVE. I seem to remember Michael Chang had a pretty wicked changeup, which I think was technically a SLICE SERVE.

Working with six pairs of crossing theme entries is not an easy task, so David does pretty well, spreading out just minor gluey bits like OSOS, NEALS, GARS (isn't the plural of gar still gar?), A RIOT, NSEC, throughout the grid. The only really troublesome bit to me was IERE, which is gluey enough by itself, but crossing it with OLEANNA puts it on the edge of unfair. Glad that the clue provided another chance for the solver to get that square right. Normally I don't care for cross-referencing, but I think telling us that IERE is an anagram of EIRE is a smart decision to better insure a fair victory for solvers.

It would have been nice to have some more time between this one and the puzzle Jim points out below, as that one came immediately to my mind. This one is slightly different, but I would have liked a few more years separating them.

POW Mon 5/9/2016
SOYACOSTSPREK
ASECDONHOLACE
ALOHASHIRTASHE
BOWENPARTYHOP
FEEDSUED
SHOWMETHEMONEY
HOURMFAPHONE
ADMBAYMAREIDA
LOOIEEMOACER
FIRSTRESPONDER
STANSTUD
SEQUENCENINES
CLUEGOLDENCALF
ALITIRKEDTRIP
REPONEONSSCAD

★ Easily the best Monday puzzle I've done all year, and perhaps one of my all-time favorites. Dan has such an interesting idea — phrases where the first word is the nickname of a state, and the second word contains that state's abbreviation. The SHOW ME state (Missouri), gets its MO in SHOW ME THE MONEY. What a great find! And being from CA, I loved GOLDEN State's GOLDEN CALF. Simple idea, yet innovative, interesting, and accessible to solvers of all levels. Just perfect for a Monday.

SHOW ME THE MISSOURI!

I also appreciated that Dan added in long bonus fill, even though he was working with a fairly theme-dense puzzle. PARTY HOP and SEQUENCE in the across direction, and a bit of PLAYDOH, SO TRUE in the vertical, added even more spice to my solving experience. A bit of ACHE FOR and RANG IN ain't bad, either.

BAY MARE (Massachusetts, the Bay State) was a little mystifying to me, but some research shows it's a real thing. It's pretty impressive that Dan found a themer that worked in so few letters.

And Dan did all of this with meticulous care in his short fill, just a minor ADM and EDS. Such a smooth solve, exactly what I want out of a Monday.

What to even point out, in the name of a balanced critique? Maybe the revealer could have been worded a little better? I had to read that a few times before understanding the gist of it. Maybe a final revealer could have helped — STATE NICKNAME, perhaps?

So well executed on all levels: theme, long fill, short fill, puzzle flow. I'd give Dan a gold star and a trophy if I had one, but he'll have to settle for the POW! If I had a POM (Puzzle of the Month) like Matt Gaffney, this one would easily be in the running.

Tue 5/10/2016
ABCSCLOWNINSO
HAHAAEGISSEER
SLAVEARLWEAVER
CTASKEDDIAS
JOHNJAYDADAS
INANERTONYHAWK
MYMANSAABNSA
HARTCRANE
ENSOUISOASES
TOMSWIFTMORALE
CREPEBIRDMAN
ILEAMOOGRAP
PETERFINCHURSA
AGEDELECTMIEN
WADSNOSEYSADO

BIRDMAN hinting at "men with last names that are birds." I've seen this type of theme before, but I like the freshness of using the 2014 movie as a revealer.

Not too shabby a superhero costume ...

Most of the guys I had seen before in this last name = bird capacity, although EARL WEAVER made me scratch my head. I sort of follow baseball, just like I sort of follow most everything to keep up (sort of), but this one was a mystery to me — not only his name, but that a WEAVER is a bird. Apparently it is!

David finds an amazing six examples, which is pretty cool. I did find it odd that BIRDMAN wasn't the last themer though — its placement as number six out of seven is curious. It is true that using a seven-letter theme revealer in row 13 is tough — that creates big corners, hard to fill — but it would have avoided the inelegance of hitting the revealer … and then getting one single more themer.

Seven themers is tough to work with. Gluey fill in almost inevitable where themers overlap. David does quite well in the center of the puzzle, with STUF being the only even slightly wonky answer (it can only be clued one way, really). But he does this by using a ton of black squares to section it off, which chokes down puzzle flow.

Given that the theme quickly became apparent, I appreciated David's efforts to include bonus fill to hold my interest. There's not much room to work in long fill, but SEESAWS, EARDRUMS, SAVANNAH, even BALCONY adds to the feeling of a satisfying solve.

This is a prime example of trade-offs in construction. Seven themers can be hugely impactful and impressive, but it's so difficult to avoid a slew of IN SO, SADO, ILEA, INANER, ROI, ANO/DIAS, etc. All minor, nothing glaring, but as a whole, it's quite a bit.

Wed 5/11/2016
ROSAAMESSCREW
ENTRMINTTIARA
DEARSANTALARRY
TOBEORNOTTOBE
ONLATEMUMABED
PEERTOBEISTODO
ATMSSTOIC
CASINOSRETAKES
ALISTBOYS
TODOISTOBESWAN
STETIONHOPETO
DOOBYDOOBYDOO
CHOPSCALLSIGNS
OBOESAGEENICE
TORSOREOSGEES

Singing, strangers in the night … doo be doo be doo … wait. DOO BY DOO BY DOO? It took me a long time to figure out that it's DOOBY DOOBY DOO. As nonsense words, there's probably no "correct" spelling. Considering the rest of the themers though — TO BE OR NOT TO BE, TO BE IS TO DO, TO DO IS TO BE — man oh man, did I want DOO BE DOO BE DOO.

Ah well.

Doo by, doo by do ... I mean, dooby dooby doo ...

A puzzle without super high theme density — four medium to long themers — can definitely be executed in just 72 words, while incorporating colorful and clean fill. If done well, it can allow the constructor to toss in a ton of snazzy bonus fill. Sometimes I wonder if it's worth it though, since constructors who chose to do this accept all sorts of compromises.

Today, I thought Pavel did a great job of this construction feat, introducing a ton of long fill like DEAR SANTA, CALL SIGNS, CIABATTA, RARE BOOK, etc. while keeping his gluey bits to a minimum. With just a bit of SSTS ABED ENTR, this 72-word puzzle turned out smooth.

I really appreciated that effort today. The theme got to be a bit repetitive, so all the bonus long fill really helped keep my attention.

The theme felt a bit loose for my taste — variations on BE — but there was something fun about the Sartre and Socrates quotes mirroring each other. I don't totally get what TO BE IS TO DO or TO DO IS TO BE means, but they sure sound philosophically deep.

Thu 5/12/2016
ADMANSODADEG
IDEALSIRISAGE
TVCREWMARATHON
SERERFONTOLIO
WRESTLINGPRISM
ASPSONEDAMAME
REIDADEONE
TRANSPARENT
UNEACETETS
FARMERSUMANOE
ALISTESTIMATED
CINECAREALANA
ABSTRACTSNOCAT
DIESTOAADELIE
ESSTOWSEASEL

What a cool idea, two-word phrases where all the letters of the second word are contained in the first. ABSTRACT ART displayed as ABSTRACT is so much fun. Great finds in MARATHON MAN and WRESTLING RING too. TRANSPARENT TAPE and ESTIMATED TIME are definitely real terms, but they're not as exciting to my ear.

What does it say about me that I once idolized this man?

James goes down to 74 words in an attempt to add in extra bonus fill. There is a good amount of nice stuff like DECREPIT, TENTACLE, EDAMAME, DRUM SET. Even the mid-length material adds spice: DAHLIA, GENOME, TV CREW, DO RE MI, SEA COW. That's a ton of extra material!

There are trade-offs, though. After I encounter maybe four or five gluey bits, I have a hard time shrugging it all off. I don't care at all about a bit of DEG, A NET, ESS here and there. But when there's more of SAE, RST, STOA, OLIO, SERER, etc. it's just too much for my constructor's brain to ignore.

It's annoying to have that constructor's perspective that I just can't turn off, because the rest of the puzzle was so much fun and entertainment. I think cutting the amount of gluey stuff in half — maybe by going up to 76 or even 78 words, shrinking the wide-openness of those big corners — could have turned this puzzle into a very good one into a great one.

Still, puzzles with such a neat theme idea don't come around all that often, and I really enjoyed this concept.

Fri 5/13/2016
PAJAMABOTTOMS
IMAGINEDRAGONS
VANESSAWILLIAMS
EZINEABLERAT
NEEDSPLAYSERE
APPALLHDTV
SAGARIAFIERCE
ETERNALSICHUAN
ATTESTCOREMRS
GABSTRUSTS
RCATSHIRTPRIG
AKCATOMCRUDE
MAKEMINEADOUBLE
DATINGAGENCIES
TALKSNONSENSE

Two young guns teaming up! Fun to see David and David work on something together. Also fun to see some nice stacking work — really long triple-stacks with clean crossings are very hard to do, but D&D pull theirs off pretty well.

Where are their tails?

I liked the top stack a lot. I wasn't familiar with IMAGINE DRAGONS, but that's not surprising given my pop culture deficiencies. I still enjoyed piecing it together though — what a cool name, and accessible too. The multi-talented VANESSA WILLIAMS gets a nice clue, about her fashion line "V." Gives her a fresh feel, as that fashion line was introduced this year.

D&D take such meticulous care with their crossings up top. MISE isn't great, since it can really only be clued in one way, and ANS is minor. 13 of 15 crossings being perfectly fine is good work.

And turning the corner into another triple-stack of SNARE DRUM/SMART CAR/STEVENS! That's tough to do. They make their task easier by adding three black squares in the upper right, which reduces it from a head-bangingly difficult construction to just a rough one. Those black squares do take away from the grid's total visual appeal for me, but not by that much. So I like this trade-off, allowing D&D to work in the snazzy SNARE DRUM and SMART CAR.

The bottom stack is also nice, plus every one of the 15 crossings is clean. MAKE MINE A DOUBLE is really colorful, too. However, DATING AGENCIES … I had to force myself to type in that last word, because it just didn't sound right to my ear. A lot of crossword-friendly letters in AGENCIES allows for super-clean crossings, but that entry fell flat for me. Always the trade-offs.

Themelesses featuring triple-stacks often rely very heavily on those stacks, giving not much else to the solver. So I really appreciated D&D working in those additional triple-stacks with great entries like ATTACK AD. With a bit of ODWALLA and SICHUAN spicing things up, plus the near-zero number of gluey entries, the overall result was an entertaining solve.

Sat 5/14/2016
SNOCONESSOUR
LOCAVORETHINE
AVEMARIATOILED
GELATINRWANDAN
LORIJOETORRE
TOOLCASELINC
SNOOZEDALEK
IBMSAWZALLLDS
PERMNBATEAM
REPOWAGESWAR
OVERDONEFLOG
MEASUREFAULTED
INNEEDCELLMATE
SOULSOLDLATIN
EMTSPLAYPENS

I liked working with this grid pattern last time, so I tweaked and tweaked and tweaked it to figure out how I might be able to wring something different out of it. Even though I used quite a few cheater squares (those stairsteps of black squares), it's still rough to work with a low word count (62).

The SAWZALL. From personal experience, I can tell you it pretty much saws through all!

Every time I got the middle to work, I'd launch into the four corners, only to find that one or more (sometimes all four!) were just not tenable. Took me a few dozen starts and stops before I finally hit on this middle region with JAZZ AGE / SAWZALL. I got three of the corners to work out, but then I had a sinking feeling the NE corner was going to bonk — that W in TWEEDLES was giving me fits. The crossing of SHINOLA/ALEK is my least favorite part of the grid, but ultimately, I thought solvers who didn't know ALEK Wek would most likely guess ALEK instead of ELEK, ILEK, OLEK, etc.

Other random notes:

  • SHINOLA: I'm a big Steve Martin fan. If you've ever seen the classic "The Jerk," you might remember an old saw that gets referenced, "You don't know sh*t from Shinola." Sadly, there was no way I could sneak this one past Will. He and Joel came up with a fantastic clue, playing on "polish" vs. "Polish."
  • Speaking of capitalized vs. not, I like Will and Joel's simplification for my NBA TEAM clue, [Bucks, e.g.]. I had suggested either [Bucks taking shots, e.g.], or [Kings in court?].
  • [Golf takeback, e.g.] for REPO. Getting the hang of this capitalized vs. not thing yet?

I have one more themeless in the queue using this pattern, but I retired it after that. It's good to move on to something different.

Maybe something that doesn't cause my wife to ask me what I'm doing up at 4 a.m. for the tenth night in a row.

Sun 5/15/2016 EXHIBIT A
CARSCARCEMPAASHAWL
ONOTAVERNELLETABOO
AGGRAVATEDASALTRILES
SLEETSRESISTINGAREST
TERSESODOMHEART
MINSKSNAPEUDORA
CRUZTARTHATSAMORAY
UNDERATACKELIOTNAME
BADOTELLOWEARMATES
STUPACKBEATON
APATCHYHELICOPTER
SLATERGIVEITS
LIBREOUSTLOCATESAY
EDITPARKAARIVALDATE
ALOANATLASTLOPIBET
KENNERKITTWHOSE
ISLAMAREASCARDS
CHANGEOFADRESSKERSEE
RICOHYOUCANTWINAMALL
OVINEARNODEAFENWII
CEDEDLEANSENSESSAG

Some really neat sound changes today, words starting in A reimagined so that the A acts as an article. APACHE HELICOPTER to A PATCHY HELICOPTER, how cool is that? THAT'S AMORE to THAT'S A MORAY, ALONE AT LAST to A LOAN AT LAST, and my favorite — AGGRAVATED ASSAULT to AGGRAVATED A SALT — these all are genius! That last one is particularly strong, given the huge spelling change involved plus the kooky visual of one sailor needling another.

EUDORA. I wonder if those are supposed to be dreadlocks?

The others didn't do as much for me, especially the ones where a letter was simply dropped. A RIVAL DATE gives a funny mental picture of two suitors jockeying for position, but ARRIVAL to A RIVAL isn't nearly as clever as APACHE to A PATCHY, in my eyes.

As usual, a grid that's clean as a whistle from the master. Especially impressive since he went down to 138 words, a tough construction challenge in itself, plus he squeezed in nine themers. It's unusual to see even an AFORE in a PB grid, but that's about it in terms of gluey bits. I did think AFORE was especially unusual, given that it sounds like it could be part of the theme.

Also as usual, some great clues to spice up the solve:

  • An EPITAPH often contains "lies" … as in "Here lies …"
  • How is a "Colonial home" a HIVE? If the bee colony is described as "colonial." (insert groan here)
  • I love it when colorful phrases are repurposed for kooky definitions. "Land line" describing a COAST is beautiful.

Some clues I had to really think about:

  • [Hand makeup] describing CARDS? You'd think that this bridge player would have gotten that sooner.
  • I thought I was a "Peanuts" aficionado. EUDORA? Apparently she wears a purple knitted cap? Huh.
  • "Ex Machina" is a 2015 film featuring a robot named AVA. Turns out that having a one-year old toddler pretty much wipes out all my ability to keep up on films.
Mon 5/16/2016
IDINGTIMEKALB
MANIAANEWAMIE
BROKENBONEBEBE
EENLEOIMONET
AMINVOLLEYBALL
TETONALABEE
TEAPOTSOLDS
DINNERTABLE
SPOTTAKESTO
PANAIRURBAN
ALARMCLOCKDOPE
METOORHEAOPS
MAIAWEREALLSET
ELONARIAMETAL
DENSRENTAISLE

This is one of my favorite types of early-week themes, phrases which seem to have nothing in common but are tied together in a surprising way. I enjoyed uncovering BROKEN BONE, VOLLEYBALL, DINNER TABLE, and ALARM CLOCK, wondering what the heck the revealer was going to be. Neat to find out that they're all things that can be SET.

All set!

WERE ALL SET felt slightly awkward to me, but it does get across the general idea. I wonder if a shorter entry like GET(S) SET could have made for a more spot-on revealer? It does provide the last element in a symmetric set — 10/10/11/10/10. Without it, that 11-letter DINNER TABLE is all by itself.

That DINNER TABLE does cause some grid difficulties. Sam uses "Utah blocks" (look at those chunks of five black squares on the sides — look like a certain state?) to break up the grid a bit, but he still has to deal with fairly wide-open corners, plus tricky spots all over the grid where two themers interact.

I don't think anything in the grid is unfair, but the excess of tough proper names might give beginning solvers a rough go. MAIA isn't something I recognized even with all my Greek myth interests, MYA is tough for us pop music idiots, RHEA Perlman hasn't had a major achievement in a while, etc. I think they're all reasonable crossings — maybe RHEA / KEA is iffy — but there are so many of them.

Sam did work in some nice bonus material like TEAPOTS, IM BEAT, BEETLES, which isn't easy given the theme density. It wasn't quite enough for me to be able to overlook all the gluey bits though — when your NW corner already contains some NIK/EEN/NEN plus the repetitive sounding IN ON IT / IN OIL / NOT IT ...

Still, it's a neat idea that kept me guessing until the end. That's more than enough to keep me entertained on a Monday.

Tue 5/17/2016
BEADIPODDOGGY
AXLESARAATLAS
REDLETTERSTOVE
SCOWSHOTSHOWER
ETRESHEM
HASBROSODAPOP
AIRBUBBLENAPA
ULTSEABEESGRR
LEASHORSEMEAT
SYSTEMSTRASHY
PDASPEED
BONEWHITENERVE
EVITAGOONAHEAD
DETERORNEANNA
SNERDRESTYESM

Every time I think Will has finally exhausted his stash of "both words can precede ___" puzzles, another one trickles through. Paula uses GO ON AHEAD to describe "both words can precede HEAD," i.e. RED LETTER = RED(head), LETTER(head), etc. It's a very nice revealer, aptly describing what's going on.

Prince IGOR of opera

"Both words can precede HEAD" feels pretty familar to me, though. Perhaps it's because Paula recently had a similar puzzle which used LETTERHEAD as one of the theme answers? This theme genre is tough these days — so many have been done that it's hard to elevate one now, even with strong themers and/or a perfect revealer.

With six themers, Paula goes a smart route in stacking pairs at the top and bottom. RED LETTER and HOT SHOWER only overlap by three letters, and those letter combinations are very friendly — TH, EO, RT. Still, it's no surprise that those regions are the parts I had the most trouble with. I hitched on PATHE, unfamiliar to me as I don't watch many foreign films, and ETRES, which was tough for me to piece together even after four years of high school French. (Needless to say, I did poorly on my AP French test.)

Similar result in the south. BONE WHITE over GO ON AHEAD gives easy IG, TO, EO letter combinations. Yet ORNE sure was tough for me. It's fair since IGOR looked much more reasonable than IGER or IGUR, but I could see solvers guessing IGER as the [Prince of opera].

DEL WEBB was also mysterious. Might just be out of my wheelhouse since that company focuses on retirement homes. Although, the retirement home right around the corner from me looks awfully enticing, with its fancy meals, private movie theater, game room ...

Overall, a really nice revealer with some strong theme entries, but a tried and true theme type like this needs to be absolutely perfect in order to stand out.

POW Wed 5/18/2016
AVAFAMINESAME
MOCOCELOTTRAY
ANTARCTICCIRCLE
ZAIREHAHRESTS
EGOISMDEFOE
DENEELONTAPE
SENATORRHEA
THATSAMOOTPOINT
HAIRCARRIED
ENDIVETENFAT
KESHASIMONE
IRKEDORETORTS
FANTASYBASEBALL
SNOWPAYSINYEA
OTTOASSERTSRS

★ This one triggered a smile in my heart, as one of my very first puzzles used a similar pronunciation twist. I liked C.C.'s interpretation, FORESEES describing the four letter Cs in ANTARCTIC CIRCLE, FORTIES = four Ts in THAT'S A MOOT POINT, and FORAYS = four As in FANTASY BASEBALL. Nice touch to have each "descriptor" cross its theme answer.

The OORT cloud

C.C. does a very nice job today with her grid. Not easy to work with crossing theme pairs, and to use three sets is tricky. FORESEES is particularly challenging, since it's so long. Good work in incorporating FORESEES, so it crosses both ANTARCTIC CIRCLE and THAT'S A MOOT POINT.

Even with those constraints, C.C. still worked in some bonuses. STRIKE TWO and STREET ROD were much appreciated bonuses during my solve.

I've noticed that C.C. has really been cleaning up her grids. It used to be that I'd notice a good handful of gluey bits here and there, but today's grid is very nice. Not even much minor SRS or TOR kind of stuff — well done. Some might balk at the OORT cloud, but it's a huge "object" in astronomy, and the crossings are fair.

Well, KESHA / VEDA and AVA / VONAGE might be tough for some. Even I've heard of KESHA (not that I could tell you if she's an actress, singer, or dancer), but I paused for a long moment before typing in that V of AVA / VONAGE. I wonder if VONAGE is more ubiquitous in other regions of the country.

And I did wonder why these particular theme phrases. There are a ton of phrases containing exactly four Cs in no particular order, same with T and A. It would have been nice to get more tightness, like if there were two words with pairs of Cs, or phrases with four Cs spaced every other letter apart, or something.

But it was really fun to see how a different constructor started with the same seed idea, and took it in such a different and interesting direction. This puzzle is my favorite of the week, so congrats to C.C. for her fifth POW!

Thu 5/19/2016
AJARBLOBACRID
COVEYOYOBUENO
THEPRIMESUSPECT
LANUTERUSBOT
INGOTSNOTHOME
KNEWHEWASCOOKED
EARNLIDROSSI
AFTERHE
SLEETAAAGUSH
WASGRILLEDBYTHE
ANTOINEALMIRA
PEEGAZEBOLIV
POLICEDETECTIVE
ENLAITATESTET
DEEMSOLAFPYRO

Debut! Morton gives a punny quip, playing on the word PRIME. Nice to tie together a few bits of police slang, the suspect knowing he was COOKED (had been found out) after getting GRILLED (questioned). The link between PRIME SUSPECT and prime rib is a bit tenuous for my taste, but as a whole, it works all right.

How would he mesh with Iron Man and Thor? Hmm...

I'm really impressed by Morton's execution. Working with four grid-spanners (15-letter entries) is tough enough, causing many places where you have to deal with two or more themers. When you throw in a fifth themer, it gets even harder.

Usually I would expect most any constructor to have trouble at the ends of grid-spanners, for example where you have to fill around the beginnings and endings of THE PRIME SUSPECT / KNEW HE WAS COOKED. Today's grid is so tough in those spots — you have to fill three adjacent 7-letter slots, all running vertically through those themers.

I had to do a double-take, amazed that Morton was able to skate by with just minor stuff in the four corners. Only STET, PEE, LAN = very impressive. And the fill is not just passable or neutral, either. There's some nice DOTTED I, HEAVE TO, ACT LIKE, AVENGER entries. Well done.

Quip puzzles have to make me laugh out loud or really think in order to make up for their raw difficulty — so tough when you're basically solving a puzzle with only the down clues — but I was impressed with Morton's construction. Extremely impressive for a first time out of the gate.

Fri 5/20/2016
ROGERTHATBOTCH
AROMARAMAACHOO
REFUSENIKRHETT
EGOHAGEMERGES
GARBEDBOAEIRE
ANTISFONDARIA
SOHNITOOUTLET
EGGMCMUFFIN
ANJOUSBFFTENK
SOUMAGOOMIXIN
PUGSFAXCOSTCO
ERUPTEDMENDEC
CILIAGUESTBOOK
TSARSEARTHTONE
SHREKTREASURED

Great clue to kick off 1-Down: a RARE (or noble) GAS is one sitting at the very right of the Periodic Table, thus giving [Noble at the end of a table?]. Got me thinking about King Arthur and the Round Table.

Sometimes themelesses featuring 15-letter answers can suffer, what with a lack of any other zest besides those long answers. Not so today! Kristian chooses some great grid-spanning entries in GO FOR THE JUGULAR and THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, and adds in a good amount of other strong fill, headlined by a beautiful triple in ROGER THAT/AROMARAMA/REFUSENIK.

Perhaps the most famous BOOM BOX in movie history?

That upper corner is so pretty. That sparkly triplet of answers is so tough to pull off, what with GO FOR THE JUGULAR already constraining it. But Kristian doesn't stop there, working in some seven-letter answers. RARE GAS is a great entry, and OREGANO adds some spice (terrible pun intended). All of that for a minor AMI and a not-quite-as-minor SOHN makes it a standout corner.

At 72 words — the max allowed for a themeless — I expect both a ton of snazzy fill and nearly zero gluey bits. I bent that last expectation a bit to allow for the difficulty of working in a pair of 15-letter answers — but not by much. So to get some CESTA / TITI / TENK (10-K) action in one region alone was a bit disappointing. Those first two are real words, but a bit on the esoteric / very-friendly-for-crosswords letter patterns. Along with some of the usual suspects — RIA, the outdated UAR, and the aforementioned SOHN, it felt like too much for me for a 72-worder.

Then again, Kristian does do more with his grid than most 72-worders. I did like the interlock of colorful answers, EGG MCMUFFIN intersecting the 15-letter answers, plus BOOM BOX running straight through it. So upon second glance, having a bit more gluey short material than what I'd like to see out of a 72-worder is all right.

Sat 5/21/2016
MISAPPROPRIATES
THEGREENLANTERN
GAVEITANOTHERGO
ETERNALOPTIMIST
SENCLEASP
TMIRANIOTIS
IMHIPROLFUMA
MEDALJEDODSON
DNAEDENROCKS
BUYSETATCIA
LASILELAI
HADAHEARTOFGOLD
UNIVERSALREMOTE
GIVEMEONEREASON
STARSTUDDEDCAST

This is the 11th double quad-stack in our page of stacks. I liked a lot about this puzzle, most notably how many of the eight grid-spanners were sparkling. I'm a giant fan of THE GREEN LANTERN — people across the universe getting chosen by different rings of power to become a member of the Green Lantern Corps. And six of the other grid-spanning entries are colorful, multi-word phrases.

Is it odd that I memorized the Green Lantern Corps' oath?

The only one I was plus/minus on was MISAPPROPRIATES. It's a fine answer, but more neutral to me than an asset. Perhaps if it had been given a really clever clue? Still, seven out of eight grid-spanners being snazzy is a very high percentage. If you compare and contrast all of the 11 double quad-stacks in that regard, I think this one does very well.

As with all of the rest, this one suffers from some gluey crossing answers. It's part of the deal, you take the bad with the neat visual impact of so much white space. I just wish that the gluey bits hadn't been so concentrated in one area that happens to be my personal bugaboo: partials. I don't mind A NIT or A SOU here or there. Toss in ON NO and that's about my threshold. I HATE and IN HIS too? It all stands out due to the concentration.

Jason brings up a good point — it's hard to work in more long material when so much of your real estate is already spoken for. So I like that he integrates FORCE FEED. Even SEVENTH DAY and TUSCALOOSA are nice bonuses running through the stacks.

I really liked the quality and quantity of the grid-spanners; so much fantastic material stacked atop each other. I love the anticipation of feeling like a puzzle might be so good that I just have to give it my POW! But alas, it was too hard for me to get past all the partials, plus the various IDENT / MTGES gluey entries.

Still, as with the other double quad-stacks, an impressive visual first impression.

Sun 5/22/2016 RISE AND FALL
KTELEPSONSEAJUDD
ARNOMARCOFIRMPROAM
RICAPROTAGORASEDEMA
SCHMITTHANDTVGUEST
TIAMOISTEDUCESYET
SANMARINOALKALIPELE
TAGIONYENGLOSSA
NEABEGSNANOS
CELESTADONIMUSOHMAN
OCATRIRAPTLYSLIME
MOUNTAINHIGHVALLEYLOW
ENDOROSWEGORUENUT
ROSIESTYRENEMEOWERS
SAMOADEALDNA
GAMETETNNGINWIM
ANASTIEOFFAAARATING
STYONSALENOMARNEO
PIERROTVEERENDWITH
AFLACHEARTELLOFECTO
TULIPAMISPIANOPALM
RANTTILOTTERTREE

This reminded me of one of my favorite visual puzzles from a few years ago. Fun to see three mountains and three valleys today. You might not have noticed that they're symmetrically located — I thought that was pretty neat, and it makes the construction task even tougher.

Ain't no mountain high enough ... wait. Dang it!

Victor mentions "triple-checked letters" — that means that some letters in the grid must work with not just the normal across and down answers, but diagonal ones as well. It's very hard to cleanly work a single diagonal answer into a grid, so to have so much diagonality today makes it an incredibly, incredibly tough construction.

Impressive result, given the difficulty factor — they generally avoided the worst types of crossword glue, just little bits of OCA, HWY, ANAS, RCPT, ECTO material. Only MEOWERS made me cringe, and the KARSTS / ARNO crossing was the only place I felt was potentially unfair.

At first, I was annoyed that my confident filling in of PYTHAGORAS turned out to be a guy I wasn't familiar with, PROTAGORAS, but reading up on him turned out to be fun. His quote, "Man is the measure of all things," is pretty deep. I like having him tucked away in my mental arsenal now.

Some nice 7-letter material too: SIR DUKE Ellington, DOE EYES, DON IMUS, NAME ONE! Not a ton of killer fill in total, but the minimal amount of gluey material was a huge construction feat. To execute this concept in 144 words would be difficult. Cutting out four more words to get down to Will's maximum means eliminating a few precious black squares that could help to separate the diagonal answers.

MOUNTAIN HIGH VALLEY LOW is a perfect revealer for the puzzle theme. But it's a real shame it's not the "ain't no mountain high enough …" song.

POW Mon 5/23/2016
HASHHOLEREHAB
ELMOAMENERODE
ROUTLIAMPIVOT
BUTTOFTHEJOKE
ELMSOSRAT
HEADOFTHETABLE
SEXSOARSTOOP
PAPANAACPMAHI
EVERYSHOWRAD
NECKOFTHEWOODS
TNTDRUDEN
EYEOFTHESTORM
PEDALFOUROREO
HALLEEDGEUSSR
DRYERTOEDROTE

★ What a great debut! Theme is fun and consistent — all zippy phrases in the form of (part of the body) + OF THE + (noun). Some might grouse about the OF THE repetition, but I like it. Cool find, a tight set of four themers which just happen to fit into crossword symmetry.

The old-school ... er, new school? HOVERBOARD

The grid is strong compared to the average construction, and way above most debuts. Ori had to work with four pretty long themers, ones that forced placement of some black squares. Note that entries of length 12-14 are "awkward" in that they cannot go in rows 3/13, which usually is best for good spacing (try it and see what happens). Squeezing themers together makes for a tougher than usual challenge.

I'd usually expect a newer constructor to use a "Utah block" around a 13-letter themer, i.e. blackening in RAT to form a chunk of black squares to help separate themers. That's acceptable, but not elegant. Ori not only leaves things wide open, but manages to work in the beautiful HOVERBOARD on the side.

He doesn't stop there. Some constructors would be satisfied with maybe a pair of long entries as bonus fill. I like Ori's big thinking, working in HALF MOON too. POWDERED doesn't do that much for me, but it does get a nice clue, referring to how it can describe donuts or wigs.

All this while keeping his short fill perfectly clean — way cleaner than 95% of all crosswords. I had such an incredibly smooth solve. Even after scouring the grid, I couldn't find a thing I could point out as iffy.

Now, I would have liked BUTT OF THE JOKE and EYE OF THE STORM switched, so that the body parts would roughly mirror a person standing up. So it's not a perfect Monday puzzle in my eyes. But it's close. Extremely well done!

Tue 5/24/2016
KEGSRAVEDAJAR
UGLYITINAHOLE
DOORPHONELINES
UNWISELIDOAXE
WANNASAYWHAT
BOOOSSOLAI
ADRAWSHOULDERS
RIMSBOGUSEZEK
RESOURCESSNIDE
NNEETTUODD
SIZETWOSOPUP
UNEISPYSEPIAS
MAPLETREESSNAP
ALPOEATITEZRA
CLOTRHINOTAPS

I really enjoy wondering how theme answers are all related, and getting an a-ha moment only when I hit the revealer. It reminds me of meta-crosswords — such a rush to suddenly figure out the answer. Today's puzzle gives us a nice example, with KEGS, PHONE LINES, SHOULDERS, RESOURCES, and MAPLE TREES being things that get tapped. I almost missed that first one — nice way to make the theme perfectly symmetrical, matching it with TAPS.

GLOWWORMS sure are pretty!

Some nice long fill, too. GLOW WORMS was one of the first entries I uncovered, and it really shines (pun intended). SAY WHAT? is such a colorful phrase, and one that I don't remember seeing recently in crosswords. Fantastic use of a seven-letter slot.

SIZE TWO doesn't do as much for me, but I wonder if women will react differently?

I really liked DAEDELUS, as I'm a huge Greek myth fan. But that crossing with LIDO … yikes, that might be tough for some. I think it's fair since DAEDELUS is a big name in Greek mythology.

LIDO crossing ENNIS though … I debated LEDO/ENNES vs. LIDO/ENNIS for the longest time. Ultimately, I've seen LIDO somewhere in crosswords before where LEDO didn't look as familiar. I got lucky. Hopefully other solvers did too. Perhaps NYT solvers really ought to know LIDO, the vacation spot? Dunno — seems kind of unfair to me.

EZIO PINZA crossing EZEK brought a similar debate to my mind. I know EZIO PINZA and EZEK(iel) from crosswords, but is that a fair crossing? Probably fine, since Ezekiel is a name that can be sussed out, and EZIO PINZA is a big star in opera.

Along with a handful of minor LAI, ATH, ASSOC type of entries, there were some spots that made me hesitate. Overall though, such a fun theme idea, and I had to wait until the very last entry to figure out the clever thread connecting all the themers. Nice a-ha moment.

Wed 5/25/2016
AMOJAFFADRAKE
SENINALLWOMAN
CASHMONEYAWARE
ADLAIDUSKYTAM
PEARCARSONCITY
UTURNADEE
ALGRAGUOOPS
JOHNNYONTHESPOT
ATTAAWOLEDU
ROMAIRKED
BENCHPRESSAPSE
ADACHARTFRIED
KIDDOROTTENEGG
ENEROADORECEE
DARYLTEPIDERR

It's not often that I scratch my head, trying to figure out a puzzle's theme. Obviously JOHNNY ON THE SPOT refers to Johnny CASH, Johnny CARSON, Johnny BENCH, Johnny ROTTEN hidden in themers. Nice that all of them are Johnnys, not Johns.

JOHNNY ROTTEN!

But what does that ON THE SPOT refer to? I spent a good 15 minutes scanning the grid, trying to see if CASH was sitting atop the word SPOT, or a type of spot, or a black square representing a spot, or something else. The clue says "literally," right? It doesn't look like there's an additional layer that I'm missing. But it feels like there should be, darn it!

Nice set of famous JOHNNYs, all four with last names that can be hidden in phrases. I liked BENCH PRESS and ROTTEN EGG a lot, and CARSON CITY is pretty good too. CASH MONEY is a real phrase, but I don't hear it that often, even working in the world of finance. I might have preferred CASH CROPS or CASH FLOWS.

Interesting selections for long fill. I hesitated in filling in FANDANGO, because I only know it as the movie ticket site. Apparently it's a Spanish dance usually accompanied by castanets. I enjoyed learning that.

As for short fill, tough to start a puzzle by hitting AMO, SEN, ADLAI, ASCAP, ALG, all in one corner. Running ONSLAUGHT through two themers does make filling more challenging, but all the glue is a high price to pay, especially when the rest of the puzzle is dotted with CEE, EDINA crossing ENERO, ADEE, UNA, HORS, etc.

KOD looks so funny, but I like it. KO'D is common enough.

There's a high theme density here, what with five long theme answers, so that explains some of the gluey bits. Perhaps I really did miss some extra layer of theme? Andrew's too good of a constructor to let all the gluey bits through without a good reason.

ADDED NOTE: In fact, I didn't spot (pun intended) the ADs, i.e. advertising spots, under the various Johnnys — I've highlighted them below. D'oh! Thanks to all who pointed this out. Makes a lot more sense now; that adds a lot of difficulty into the already theme-dense construction.

Thu 5/26/2016
SLAVSETASLOAM
TULIPSALEUNPC
AMATIQUICKTIPS
REMAKESBONZO
STOLENFINENBA
SLOMODEBRIS
ANGIEAXISLILT
ROUGERHOSINGE
OVENSTOWANGER
MESSUPLAIRD
ALTGAPEMASALA
SIGMAOPTIMAL
TAPASBARSODIST
ATOMOVALGESSO
JETSTOGOASHES

Fun idea, playing on phrases starting with a single letter. VITAL SIGNS is clued as if it were a long form of V SIGNS (winning symbols). ONION RING shortened to O-RING, GUEST SPOT to G-SPOT, etc. I don't remember seeing this exact concept, so it was fun to get something innovative and new. Very rare for me.

Not a box office hit, but I enjoyed it

I did wonder what the "shortening" really meant, or how accurate it was. This would have been a mind-blowing puzzle if O really was short for ONION, for example. And I also wondered why Andrew chose TAPAS BARS for T-BARS rather than TIKI BARS, TACO BARS, TOOL BARS, TOFFEE BARS (besides having to fulfill crossword symmetry, of course).

But it's pretty hard to find so many examples of this kind of "shortening." There aren't a lot of phrases that are an expansion of O-RING besides ONION RING; same goes for V-SIGNS and VITAL SIGNS, etc. So overall, an interesting idea.

The grid is really, really well filled. Andrew has seven (!) mid-length themers — hard to cram all of them in, period. Nice crossing of QUICK TIPS / ONION RING and GUEST SPOT / TAPAS BARS to create good spacing, and excellent overlapping of VITAL SIGNS / GUEST SPOT and ONION RING / BLINDSIDES. Impressive layout of the grid's skeleton.

Given so much interlock / overlap, I would have expected 1.) not a lot of bonus fill and 2.) a bunch of gluey bits strewn about. Incredibly impressive to work in SPIKE LEE (a "Mississippi MASALA" tie-in would have been awesome!), SPAMBOT, and even BONZO, OPTIMAL are nice. All that with just a LAIRD, and even that I don't have much a problem with since it's a real-world word. Perhaps too much reliance on Greek letters — TAU, RHO, SIGMA, even ETAS — but overall it's a real feat of elegant construction.

Love seeing something new and different on a Thursday.

Fri 5/27/2016
SCRAMBLESHAWED
WHATAJERKOVATE
MANICOTTITAXON
LARSENMIENS
BARTOKFUELS
AMEGILLSPET
RIALLENINSTOMB
OGLEERICADEBI
NOTAGBACKSSTAR
SSRROLESIND
ONENDSHOCKS
BLOATFATTEN
LAPAZOPIONEERS
ALECKRICOCASEK
HARPYDESDEMONA

Some really colorful language spread throughout the grid today, WAXES POETIC and NO TAGBACKS! my favorites. I like how Damon distributed his feature entries so I kept on getting a burst of sparkliness here and there. There are the typical triple-stacks in the NW and SE, but check out the zigzag of REAL TROOPER to NO TAGBACKS to SKINFLICKS to LENINS TOMB to WAXES POETIC.

GERALD FORD was kind of a stud!

I also like GERALD FORD in that series of interconnected answers, but it would have been great to get a more entertaining clue for him. He was an Eagle Scout, played on two national title college football teams, fought in WWII, was part of the Warren Commission, served as the House Minority Leader, pardoned Nixon. I tend to remember him from the Chevy Chase SNL sketches, but man, this guy had a storied life.

That chain of great entries snaking through the grid does have its drawbacks. Every crossing generates a place that's a little tricky to fill around. Check out the REAL TROOPER / NO TAGBACKS crossing. Damon does pretty well in that region, except for the outdated SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic) and AME. Although, the African Methodist Episcopal Church has a gigantic membership — I'd love to hear if members actually refer to themselves as AME, which would make that entry perfectly fine for me.

The middle is the really tough section, with four long entries running through it; so tricky to get perfect. Damon almost nails it, with just IN ICE sticking out. ON ICE feels like a solid phrase to me, but IN ICE does not. I ended up with a mistake, thinking GOLLS must be some esoteric or Biblical measurement. Either a more straightforward GILLS clue, or owning up to the partial with [Packed ___ (ready for shipping, as with fresh fish], would have been my preference.

Along with APIE, LALA, ESO, there was too much crossword glue for me given that there were about 12 great entries in the puzzle (I like assets minus liabilities to be greater than 10). But still, two nice triple-stacks along with a great set of interlocking feature answers.

Sat 5/28/2016
ZIPPERGLACES
SNARLUPRESULT
ASSESSEDINSTIR
ZOTATTELETGTI
SNOBSELIGBLIP
AGRIPSULCEASE
GALAXYQUEST
NATOMEMBERS
HIPHOPMUSIC
CANESRONNATTY
ONESHADSTNEHI
ASIROSETEASEP
TORNUPLETSSLIP
ELOISERETRACE
DONNEDSOISEE

Six strong answers form the center of today's grid. GALAXY QUEST was surprisingly entertaining (as was Tim Allen), and NATO MEMBERS / HIP HOP music give a good diversity of entries — a little something for everyone. I was only vaguely familiar with LILY MUNSTER, but I bet the older solving crowd will delight in seeing one of the title "The Munsters" characters highlighted. Thank goodness every one of the LILY crosses was easy to suss out.

LILY MUNSTER, front and center

Well, except the second L. I sweated — LILY was the only real-sounding name, but SUL surely had to be wrong. SUD or SUR, right? Could LIRY or LIDY actually be some monster/Munster-sounding name? Turns out SUL is Portuguese for south. Yikes. I think it's fine to expect NYT solvers to have basic knowledge of foreign languages, but more at the level of AMI or UNO or at least words that can be figured out through etymology.

Great grid flow. Each corner has so many ways into it. The downside of this arrangement is that it's really tough to construct — getting sections to smoothly merge while still incorporating colorful answers is tough. I like the SW corner, with HAN SOLO given a modern clue (thank goodness I just saw the movie!) and NINE IRON getting a fun clue for golfers. (A pitch is a golf shot requiring high loft.) I was so sure the latter had to be some sales or baseball term, so I got a nice a-ha.

Other corners had some rough spots. IN SONG feels like a disguised partial to me. When would you ever use it without "break out"? Speaking of break out, IN STIR … in THE stir, yeah? Apparently it's more common in specific parts of the country?

And A GRIP / ZOT is interesting. As much as I find partials to be inelegant, at least ["Get ___"] gives a challenge. (Get a room, get a life.) ZOT is such a giveaway (for those who read B.C.) — it's what Stan Newman might call "unStumperable," i.e. he might avoid it because there's no way to clue it such that it provides any challenge.

Neat center of the puzzle and great grid flow, with a couple of shorter entries I hitched on.

Sun 5/29/2016 BEST PICTURE ADAPTATIONS
HERCABINEDNAQUADS
ORAALEROSBEERHUNTER
LIVSILENCEOFTHEIAMBS
ACELACORNYAIT
REBAPOOLTRIPPY
THEVASTEMPERORSTARER
REVISIONABUTLIMO
UNIDUNCESWITHWOLVES
SCEPTERHAPRIPENE
SEWEREASYCOOKIETIN
GONGWITHTHEWIND
FLAGPOLESOREOEARLS
IAMISALASGASMAIN
FRENCHCONFECTIONNEE
TINEEVIEMONGOLIA
HARASSABEAUTIFULMINK
TATTERCRITLINK
ANIEERIESIEVE
GERMSOFENDEARMENTMIX
MYHAIRLADYHEINIEANA
AEONSEROSDCTENDOM

Fun plays on Oscar-winning movies, changing a single letter to give kooky results. SILENCE OF THE IAMBS was laugh-out loud funny due to its absurdity, and the rest were generally pretty humorous. Amusing to think of Jabba the Hut as THE VAST EMPEROR.

Watch your carbs, kid

It felt inelegant to have some THEs included and some not, but I imagine it was necessary for crossword symmetry. A shame.

Given Kevin's history of multi-layered themes, I was so sure something was going to be spelled by the changed letters. Or the original letters? After all, there would be some flexibility given that DEER HUNTER could be changed to PEER, SEER, DEAR, DEED, even PUNTER, HINTER. Alas, BIVUGFKGH (new letters) DLLAENDTF (original letters) don't spell anything. Ah well; fun to think of what might have been.

Kevin does really well with his bonus fill — COOKIE TIN, FLAGPOLES, RAVE REVIEW, RAN LIKE MAD, MONGOLIA — useful to keep up the interest of the non-movie fans out there. Even GAS MAIN, TRIPPY, STASIS added to the quality of my solve.

A few blips in short fill are to be expected in any 140-word Sunday puzzle. Kevin mostly keeps his gluey bits to the ignorable kind, with a bit of BEL, ENE, TRAC, OEO. The one place I thought was pretty crunchy was the AIT/ARHAT region in the upper right. Not surprising since Kevin chose to stack BEER HUNTER and SILENCE OF THE IAMBS, forcing a ton of letter pairs to work with. Perhaps ARHAT should be in solvers' general knowledge, since it's an important concept in Buddhism? But this is the one spot where it feels like the solver isn't 100% set up to ultimately win.

It would have been mind-blowing to get an extra layer into this puzzle, the nine special letters somehow spelling out … something. Too bad ADAPTATION is 10 letters, not nine! But it would have been nearly impossible to get a sequence like this worked in, given the rules of crossword symmetry and the difficulty of packing in so many themers.

As it was, I appreciated Kevin's efforts to shoehorn in a ton of fun movie "adaptations." Much more straightforward than I expect from Kevin, but still an enjoyable solve.

Mon 5/30/2016
MARXISOLDEKOA
AVERDOMAINELL
PINACOLADASEDO
SATYRHENOPEN
SALSADANCING
ASLWOOOTT
DEADLASTOVERDO
DAZEFOALSTEAT
STYLESROADSALT
SUEUMALEO
DOUGLASADAMS
ANNETASNOBLE
REDTOSSEDSALAD
KIAINHEREROVE
SLYMEATAXSWAN

TOSSED SALAD describing the letters S A L A D mixed up within phrases. Some nice finds, particularly SALSA DANCING (I used to do that a lot back when I was single) and DOUGLAS ADAMS, the genius behind "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

Austria celebrating DOUGLAS ADAMS' legacy

I also liked PINA COLADAS, but it felt like the outlier, being the only one where the mixed-up S A L A D string didn't span across the two words of the phrase. Given that S A L A D are pretty friendly letters to anagram in various ways, it would have been nice for all of them to span across phrases.

Nice gridwork, especially considering David worked with six themers. Not an easy feat, and David went above and beyond to include some long bonus entries in LAZY SUNDAY and KEEP IT REAL, both strong, colorful answers.

Smooth grid, given how many places have to work with two or three themers. The toughest sections are in the NW and SE, having to build around three themers — really well done around the SATYR/CRAWL/WOO area. Similarly in the symmetrical spot, although OSAMA … historically important, but not the kind of downer I typically like to see in my crossword.

The only place I thought was not as strong as the rest was the east section, with OTT, NOV, ELL, EDO. All of them are super minor, and a case can be made for each of them as perfectly acceptable. Still, they collectively are the price of the awesome KEEP IT REAL, and I think it's a fine trade-off, even for a Monday puzzle. Every one of the crossings are fair, so even novices who don't know about OTT's crossword ubiquity can still achieve a successful finish.

Fun start to the week.

Tue 5/31/2016
IMOFFMTIDASMU
CRUDEOAREDTAR
ESTREETBANDUGG
TRIOEDGE
SKYYIFORMATION
PLEASESAOSCOTT
HELLOLGBT
EPLURIBUSUNUM
RELOTOPIC
MARACASMAESTRO
ILOVEPARISHOOP
SAMEOCHS
ESCOHENRYTWIST
RKOWALDOYIKES
SAMNYLONEIEIO

Fun idea, themers starting with the refrain E-I-E-I-O. I love E PLURIBUS UNUM, such a snazzy phrase, and the I FORMATION is excellent football lingo. E STREET BAND is fun too, even this pop music idiot recognizing Springsteen's band. Really nice to have EIEIO tucked in the perfect spot, the final across answer neatly wrapping up the puzzle.

Lined up in the I FORMATION

I initially wasn't a huge fan of O HENRY TWIST. It sounded made-up to my ear, an answer manufactured to match E STREET BAND's length. But after looking it up, I've slowly been cottoning to it. It doesn't Google well (in quotes), but it does make intuitive sense. I'm still undecided as to whether or not I'd ever use it in one of my own crosswords.

That EIEIO in the bottom right is much harder to work in than it might seem — there's a reason why so many constructors place their short revealer in some odd position rather than in an elegant one. Check out how much constraint it places upon the grid, what with TWIST fixed in place just two rows above it. Not a lot of flexibility, forcing things like STYE SEI TSO. None of those are that bad, but in aggregate, it's the only section in the grid that feels a bit gritty.

The EIEIO placement also hamstrings you by making it tough to incorporate longer bonus fill. Without it, the black square between NOSH and WII might not have been necessary, allowing for a nice eight-letter entry in that space. I did appreciate Sarah's efforts to get some bonus material like MARACAS and MAESTRO, but a little more would have been nice. (I know, I always want a little more.)

And AO SCOTT … it's a nice entry, with that bizarre AOSC start. But I feel like its placement doesn't work well with today's theme, making me see E I AO E I O. So many single vowels. It's a minor point, since the E I E I O are placed at the start of the longest grid entries.

Otherwise though, a tidy theme with generally nice grid execution.