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Puzzles for June, 2017
with Jeff Chen comments

View these same grids with comments from:
Constructor (26)Jeff Chen (30)Jim Horne (3)Hide comments
Thu 6/1/2017
RAFTSASASON
SADLOTSBATHTOY
ETRURIAPRELUDE
CHIOFTLOWALT
LOEWFALUNORES
ULNARTISBLTS
DENNISEERIE
ESETHESSETFDA
STEADMEDIAN
HMOSSECRERUN
HEROHIREDWEGO
ELMWOERIOSHY
ADORERSTERMITE
LITHESTSCALDED
SNOOPYINKER

What a neat visual! Something so pretty about those four diagonals leading out to the four sets of circles. Eye-catching, artistic pattern.

We get THE WORLD circling in four places … that must mean "around THE WORLD"? ... with the SUN in the middle of the puzzle? It didn't all click for me, as I wasn't sure why around THE WORLD was circling … around what? And why were four worlds circling the SUN?

I'm sure my comics-ubergeek brother will clue me in, telling me about some fictional star system with four worlds circling the SUN. It'd be so awesome if it were called ETRURIA or ASASON!

Speaking of those, it's so tough to avoid obscure or esoteric entries when filling around so many circled letters. Although Derek and Sarah have a lot of flexibility in 1.) which way THE WORLD revolves and 2.) where to start it, it's highly likely that exactly zero of the 16 possibilities would have been easy to fill around.

I was all set to say how impressed I was with the NE corner, chock full of BATH TOY, PRELUDE, OODLES, and … ASASON? Oof. You can love someone like a son, you can think of someone as a son, but AS A SON by itself would be a puzzle-killer for me.

These types of heavily-constrained biggish corners tend to need entries with -ER and -EST additions, and/or RE- prefixes. The SW corner is a perfect example. EASIEST is a fine word, but ADORERS and LITHEST are both iffy.

It's common for these biggish, constrained corners to need short gluey bits, too. I don't mind an innocuous (and easily gettable) ESE. Maybe I should have known Jack SOO, one of the few Asian actors of his time? DIECI is … Italian for ten? Herb RITTS? Hmm.

This sort of puzzle with heavy constraints — so many letters fixed into place all over the grid — is so hard to pull off well. All in all, I would have liked a bigger payoff, something that made more sense of the rationale why four THE WORLDs were going around the SUN.

Still, what a great first impression the blank grid made on me.

ADDED NOTE: Astute reader Seth Cohen pointed out that THE WORLD rotates regularly, shifting two spots at each new position ... sort of how our world rotates as it revolves around the SUN. D'oh, can't believe I missed that. That does make much more sense now. I'm embarrassed to admit that I stared at everything for a good 10 minutes but couldn't piece together exactly what was going on.

Fri 6/2/2017
MECCALSDVIVID
ONYOUETAPRONE
BACONATORSALSA
ICANTWAITQUAD
LTDMATCHPOINTS
CAYMOWTIE
IMPLYSCAPEGOAT
MAIAEQUUSALTO
ALEPHNULLWIDEN
TLCAVEJOT
ASEASYASPIEBBS
LAMBMIAMIHEAT
ONEALIDRISELBA
STATESECMILER
SALESHAHERASE

Mike was over at my place for a beer a few weeks back, and he shared with me an enviable fact: he and John are around 75% in terms of themeless acceptances. Considering Will once told me there's only one person who's sustained an acceptance rate over 40-50%, that's fantastic.

(The person is Patrick Berry of course, at around 90%.)

So what's their secret? Sending money directly to me, in stacks of large, unmarked bills. You can do it too!

Well, that, and working only with 70- or 72-word grids, focusing all their effort toward getting the four corners packed with juicy, clean fill. Middle of the puzzle be damned!

Of course, this is easier said than done. Creating a single triple-stacked corner with great entries and smooth fill is hard enough. Finishing a grid with four of them is a tough task.

I loved the lower right, AS EASY AS PIE for me since I'm a huge IDRIS ELBA and basketball fan. What a great clue for MIAMI HEAT too — I usually don't think about what logos actually are. Cool flaming (basket)ball.

Mike said VOLUNTOLD was one of their seeds. That one didn't do much for me, as 1.) I hadn't heard of it, and 2.) found it hard to believe people would say something so silly-sounding. It could easily be a TRYHARD situation, where I pooh-poohed that entry at first, and now I've heard all sorts of people (much younger than me) say it. Hmm.

INSATIATE in that same corner … I tried to plunk in "insatiable" and was confused why it didn't fit. Hmm again. INSATIATE is in the dictionary, though I doubt I'll ever use it.

ALEPH NULL was another curious one. I love math, having read a ton of Martin Gardner's work in rec math. But ALPEH NULL was tough to piece together, and it took a while to figure out what it meant (stupid complicated Wikipedia article!). I wonder how this entry will strike non-math fans.

In that same corner, John got worried that they had gotten scooped on MALL SANTA when they were working on the grid. It is true that themelesses tend to shine on the strength of a handful of fresh feature entries. But I think that given enough time between publications, great entries can still retain their sparkle, like this one.

I did get stuck in the NW, unwilling to believe that CYCAD was a thing. I kept wondering why LTD was specific to Lucasfilm (it's not). This uberdork immediately put in THX. Sigh.

Overall, great work keeping the grid smooth and silky. If only a couple of feature entries had resonated a little better for me ...

Sat 6/3/2017
FASCIASPIRATES
ARCADIAARACHNE
REAPERSCONCISE
PARIAHSANTESUP
OWESTOMANTRA
SAUCERSBATTLES
TYPENOWINSERT
BIZ
RUSTBEZELPRIE
ANTIWARTAPIOCA
MAIMEDSENDER
ALFREDOLATERON
DEFINESELUSIVE
ARECIBOALLAGES
STREETSSEAPORT

My constructor's spidey sense tingles when I see huge open white spaces like these. Gigantic chunks, roughly 7x7, can't consistently be filled with entries that are both sparkly and smooth. I girded myself for a solving experience filled with made-up sounding -ER, -EST, RE- words, plus a bunch of esotery.

What an immensely pleasant surprise in the NE corner, then! There isn't anything that shines except IRON MAN (I love me my superheroes), but so many of those seven-letter entries are fine. PIRATES and ARACHNE are nice, THISTLE, BATTLES, and CONCISE too.

Okay, the PACA is iffy, but it is a real animal, so I can let that one slide. ENSURER was the only real sticking point for me — I plunked in INSURER, sure that it was correct. But with just a single made-up-feeling entry, this corner was a standout, as compared to other wide-open puzzles.

The SE demonstrates the typical trade-off constructors must make with these types of big corners. It's so smooth, only PRIE needed as crossword glue to hold it together. But nothing much stands out to me. And it does feel heavy with names that can't take clever clues. Yes, RODRIGO Duterte is (unfortunately) crossworthy, but you're never going to have a playful clue for him. Similar issue for Robert Cavelier de LA SALLE and PETULA Clark.

The SW suffered the most, I thought. It had the most snazzy stuff — I love TIM RICE's lyrics, and BAD DEBT and WEENIE are great entries that could have taken imaginative clues — but RAMADAS (open-sided shelters?) felt 1.) esoteric and 2.) like a constructor's crutch, what with that friendly vowel-consonant alternation.

Oh, and UNALERT … oof. It does appear in some dictionaries, I guess. Along with the ARECIBO / TIM RICE crossing, which is probably unfair to many solvers ... double oof.

Along with the lack of interlock — notice how all too easy it is to describe the puzzle in terms of four quadrants — this isn't my favorite style of themeless. Still, it did provide a good Saturday workout, and the change of pace every once in a while is welcome. And that top right corner turned out well for this type of puzzle!

POW Sun 6/4/2017ADVICE TO WRITERS
COMPASSCOSTAROMEGA
ADMIRALRETINALCANON
NEVERGENERALIZEADDON
RESEEDMEINERGO
SPECSPOOFREADCARFULY
COVETSEENANYONES
AGEDSPATETRACAR
NOSENTENCEFRAGMENTS
AORTALUTAHVOID
SBARROAMPSPOTUSA
PASSIVESMUSTBESHUNNED
RDSESOSASEANODES
YEAHAUDILOSTIT
DONTUSECONTRACTIONS
LEOAMINOETHCHAT
POWERUPACREPENNE
AVOIDREDUNDANCYABOUT
CERNSNOBTOOKTO
MRMOMAVOIDREDUNDANCY
AGENTLEAKIERTERRIER
NODESSTEEDSHEYDAYS

★ As a writer (I recently landed a two-book deal with HarperCollins, woo hoo!), I enjoyed the "rules" Tom featured today. Something so amusing about the image of a professor lecturing to his/her students, saying DON'T USE CONTRACTIONS, and then wondering why all the students were tittering.

I smiled at the first one — NEVER GENERALIZE, the entry itself generalizing — and didn't stop until I reached the last one. Er, ones. It confused me to get AVOID REDUNDANCY, and then to get it again. Neat a-ha moment when I realized the meta-wink, using that entry redundantly!

A friend and I were chatting a while back about how Tom is such a standout in Sunday puzzles; how his byline is one of the few that once we see it, we can't wait to dive in. This one wasn't quite as creative as some of his others, but this writer sure enjoyed it. Will does try to space out Sunday constructors so that there's a ton of variety in authors, but I'd welcome Tom's Sunday byline more than every three months or so.

And Tom is one of the few constructors who I'd encourage to use less than 140 words. Will's experiment in this sub-140 space hasn't been too successful in my eyes, but there are a few people who do make me see the value in it. 136 words is incredibly tough to pull off, and there is a handful of MMV, OCA, ESO, STET, RDS kind of stuff. But it's all minor, and the quantity is less than we see in most 140-word puzzles.

Most importantly though, going down to 136 words allowed Tom to feature a lot of long or mid-length bonus material that shines. PIERCED EARS. MADE FOR TV. HOLE IN ONE. MUSICIAN, with its clever [Person of note?] clue. HEYDAYS. ADMIRAL Ackbar for us "Star Wars" nerds. END RUN. Even GOOGLE with a McCoyesque clue, referencing their heavily guarded PageRank algorithm. Great bonuses all throughout the puzzle.

This is the type of trade-off I think is well-worth it. So much great bonus fill for some minor gluey bits (and an odd OVERGO) … that's the way to do a sub-140 word Sunday puzzle.

Looking forward to the next McCoy byline already.

Mon 6/5/2017
BOZODEANJILT
ARESELMOWADES
TESLACOILEBOOK
HOTOILDELL
ESSDABSILENTI
HARRISONFORD
CIIEECNOFOOL
MANGYWEEWISPY
ONAHOPUPIGEE
LINCOLNPENNY
TOESHOEEDUCPA
OPECIDCHIP
SETTODODGEBALL
ALOESBONOESAU
TIREETASREFS

Congrats to Paul on his NYT debut! I've seen his name in other venues, so it's great to welcome him into the NYT fold.

Circled Os, representing wheels, support a TESLA, FORD, LINCOLN, and a DODGE. I've prettied up the picture below, the same as what we did when this same idea ran a few years ago. It's a shame that Paul got scooped. Very common for two people to come up with the same idea independently, but the previous one sure takes away from the novelty.

Nice selection of themers, all of them snazzy. I hadn't realized that a TESLA COIL was a radio transmitter — fun fact to learn. Every themer does a good job disguising the car make, too. Minor nit: I would have liked all four makes to be at the front of their phrase; a little wonky to have FORD be the only one at the end.

It's not easy to work in those eight Os in fixed places. I liked how Paul balanced each of the four cars so nicely, each wheel exactly one square away from the end of the car. But it sure created some compromises.

Take the west section, for example. It's not easy to work with two long entries atop each other in LINCOLN PENNY and TOESHOE. Add in the fact that there's a pretty big white space to fill above them, and it's not a surprise to get CII (random Roman numeral) and CANIO (such a tough name for a Monday).

And check out the lower left. Neat revealer in TIRE — that was necessary to make this a Monday-easy puzzle — but TOR is a heavy price to pay. (I'm an avid rock climber and a regular crossword solver, and TOR is barely familiar to me.) Along with ALOES, an odd plural (made even more so by the presence of INDIGOS and YOOHOOS), it should have been reworked.

Sometimes I curse my stupid brain. In this case, Liz's puzzle came immediately to mind, and it took away from my solving enjoyment today. Perhaps more time separating these two puzzles would have helped, but a better solution would have been to ask Paul to rework with some new layer or feature. Not sure what that would be ...

Admirable to hear how hard Paul worked both on this crossword and on his 35(!) novels!

Tue 6/6/2017
COBSAGAVEFACE
LIONBALERELAL
ALBAEIDERLEGO
UMBRELLAPOLICY
DELLALOX
ENERUMJFKFOE
HAPPYHOLIDAYS
AMENREADYRILE
STAYFORDINNER
PADLASENSECO
OURFINAL
BABEINTHEWOODS
DOZEOOHEDTUDE
UZISUTURNAGIN
OOZESIDEASHES

Doug and I have exchanged many emails about this celeb constructor series. It was so neat hearing details about his experience with Lisa, an enthusiastic solver and co-constructor who wanted to be involved in every step of the process. How awesome to be invited over to her house to work together in person!

I love that their theme (one-word famous songs within phrases, reinterpreting the phrases through wacky clues) relates to Lisa. I only recognized HAPPY off the bat — I couldn't remember exactly what Lisa's hit song was titled — but I did get a kick out of HAPPY HOLIDAYS being defined as observances around that particular song.

They had to work with terribly inconvenient themer lengths, those 13- and 14-letter entries so pesky. Note 1.) how UMBRELLA POLICY has to be put in row 4 instead of row 3, and how that squishes the themers together more than usual. No bueno! And also note 2.) that each of the themers forces at least one black square placement right off the bat. Double no bueno!

I like that Doug put together a few grid skeletons and discussed the pros and cons with Lisa, and that she helped consider both the aesthetic considerations as well as the trade-offs between snazzy and smooth fill. Doug had one layout using "Utah blocks" — imagine if ENE had been blacked out — which would have made the fill easier, but many of us constructors can't stand the visual chunkiness of so many black squares. Feels like a crutch, a blemish on the puzzle.

Doug puts a high emphasis on packing his puzzles with strong, long fill, and that was much appreciated today. BOBBLEHEAD! UPROARIOUS! ERROL FLYNN! FAIR ENOUGH! These can help hold a solver's attention if he/she doesn't quite connect with the theme. And the layout is so nice; those long downs perfectly spread out. More constructors ought to lay out their puzzles using this general approach.

A few minor ENE / ESE / ENS, along with a oof-worthy AGIN. But not bad overall, especially considering the inconvenient themer lengths.

I also liked that they worked in so many music entries/clues. I normally would balk at the crossing of ELAL / ELO in an early-week puzzle, but today it seemed fun to me. Referencing Hall & Oates, The Shangri-LAS, DELLA Reese was also nice.

Given that I had to look up half the featured songs (I'm a pop culture idiot), the theme didn't resonate well enough with me to get a POW! But I enjoyed the result of this collaboration. I hope it doesn't stop here — how cool would it be if they became a regular crossword-making DUO!

Wed 6/7/2017
ASHHEAPSUCSF
STEADYJOBMATE
GARDENSLUGPLEA
ATEINATOPLES
RESTGARTERBELT
DRYGEMSOLDTO
SETONNOTIN
BLITZKRIEGBOP
SLOSHAMIES
HANSENANDRAW
ARGYLESOCKROTO
MEHPROFGITMO
BOOTOFFTHECUFF
LURETAKEAKNEE
ETNALOWRIDER

Every once in a while, I finish a puzzle and stare at it, trying to figure out the theme. It took me an embarrassingly long 12 minutes of searching and thinking and beating my head to realize that five phrases end with synonyms for "hit": SLUG, BELT, BOP, SOCK, CUFF. D'oh!

Why was this theme so hard to pick up? Besides my idiocy, Tim used a wide-open layout; a themeless-esque word count of 70. That opens up so much room for great fill, and Tim uses most all of it well. STEADY JOB, TAKE A KNEE, LOW RIDER, LONGHORN, GARDEN SLUG … oh wait, that last one is a themer. Double d'oh! You see the problem? All that great long fill in the across direction muddies what's a themer and what is not.

I like it when a puzzle gives me a little credit, doesn't dumb it down, but in this case, I would have liked a final HIT or something that clued me in.

Another solution would have been to use a more standard layout, with only five long across answers, making the five long across phrases stand out more naturally.

Tim's such a strong constructor. It's not easy to complete such a theme-dense and wide-open grid without some crossword glue. There is a ROTO, but what else? Some may balk at E INK, but I love it. Not only is it a modern invention, but millions of people use it (it's featured in Amazon's Kindles). So, extremely well done there.

I did pause at so many "+ preposition" phrases — CALLED TO, SOLD TO, FEAST ON, SET ON — but there are always trade-offs when you work with such a tough grid skeleton. I'd much rather have a pile-up of these types of phrases that just take up space than have a gloppy mess of crossword glue, so I can give them all a pass.

I usually like it when synonym-theme words are disguised, and these phrases sure do that. But I don't like feeling defeated like I was beaten by the puzzle. (DRUM BEAT would have been another possibility!) Strong execution, as with most all of Tim's puzzles, but I would have enjoyed this one more as a Monday puzzle, with an explicit revealer to explain what was going on. (Or, if I was smarter.)

POW Thu 6/8/2017
BADASSFATCAT
LATIFAHADELIE
PERMEATESONARS
AGTSROBOTSPIT
WARRANTED
ATADMINCEROSA
TOYOTAGUARANTY
BICSEVAN
CAPITALQETCHER
OBOEWORDSHOSE
COPACETIC
HUTTENOCHARGO
ATARISDIDICONN
IMBEATEDMONDS
RESENDSEINES

★ What a neat idea! David found four nine-letter words such that 1.) they split up into three valid three-letter words, and 2.) the final six letters form a valid word, too. [Called for] is not WAR, for example — it's WAR / RAN / TED. Add in an apt MINCE / WORDS revealer, and I had a blast solving this.

(I've fixed up the answers below so that the answers match the clues.)

Such a neat visual too, those four black pluses so artistic. I like seeing grid patterns I've never (or rarely) seen before, and this one qualifies.

Some strong fill, too, not easy given the constraints. It may seem easy to work around such short theme answers, but I've highlighted them below to give you a better sense of how inflexible the grid skeleton is.

I usually prefer when themeless-esque grids feature entries longer than seven letters since it's easier to convert those into sparkling fill. Today though, I might have liked it better if David had shifted over his first vertical set of black squares to where the SHE of SHEBANG is. It's tough enough to work around all those little theme answers, and entries like DIDICONN don't do much for me. (Sorry, Conn fans!)

Also, David's mid-length fill shone today. Starting off with a BAD ASS (take that, Gray Lady!), a BAR TRAY, continuing with ABOUT ME, HOT RODS, finishing with SHEBANG, I'M BEAT — that's a lot of great mid-length material worked in.

There were some SEINES ADELIE ETCHER SATORI entries that didn't shine as much (and/or felt like liabilities), but that's more par for the course with mid-length material.

Always the trade-offs — I like that David worked in a good amount of snappy fill and kept his crossword glue to a minimum, just some AGTS, ESTD. I'm sure he could have worked in a few more jazzy entries at the cost of more dabs of glue, but the balance that he chose made the puzzle seem highly polished and professional to me.

Four great theme finds plus above-average execution earns David another POW!

ADDED NOTE: I hadn't even noticed that the black square chunks look aptly like plus signs! Wow, I like this one even better now!

Fri 6/9/2017
DASHCAMETRADE
ENTERKEYDREVIL
PERFECTOGENEVA
EMOTEAURASMIN
NIPSERRORCANT
DASLUZONCORER
CARATSHEILA
AWAYONHOLIDAY
SNARLSEXITS
HASTABRIMSMAR
ACHEDOLCESAGA
GODYODELMIXER
UNODOSFEMININE
ADWARETAILENDS
RANTEDNOSWEAT

Great feature entry in YOUR OTHER LEFT. Hard to parse out, and such a fun clue: [Not right, sarcastically]. The wordplay around the word "right" was beautiful, misdirecting me toward the "correct" sense of the word "right." A WITT-y themeless seed (wish I thought of that).

Standard themeless layout, featuring four sets of stacked answers, one in each corner, and a diagonal of black squares from NE to SW helping to break things up. Newer constructors ought to give a pattern like this a shot; a good place to start.

It might not look like those NW and SE corners would be hard to fill, but they tend to be tricky. The black squares at the ends of YOUR OTHER LEFT turn out to be mighty helpful in filling those corners — in this type of themeless grid skeleton, I frequently use cheater squares positioned like this. Helps to produce cleaner and snazzier results.

And beautiful work in those corners! The NW is near PERFECTO, with just DAS as a minor dab of crossword glue, and DASH CAM / ENTER KEY and ME TARZAN standing out. The other corner wasn't quite as nice — TAIL ENDS didn't shine as well for me — but with OXICLEAN and NO SWEAT, it also felt polished.

Not as polished-feeling were the other two corners. Not surprising, given the fact that they both have to "turn the corner," i.e. SHAGUAR / ANACONDA / WASH DOWN have to intersect RANTED / ADWARE / UNODOS. I don't mind DAT, as I like the New Orleans Saints' WHO DAT! cry, but UNO DOS is a puzzle-killer for me. Yes, it's linked to TRES up top, but UNO DOS is essentially a six-letter partial that can't be saved in this constructor's eyes.

I do think CARTE crossing HASTA is fair, since "A la CARTE" and "Hasta la vista, baby!" are well-known enough. But toss in LUZON, and it feels not as smooth as it could have been.

I also wondered about the SHAGUAR. I loved the Austin Powers movies, but it was depressing to see that the first one is 20 years old now. Twenty. TWENTY. Well, I feel old now. I do think DR EVIL holds up well over time since he's an iconic character, but SHAGUAR feels on the fringe of crossworthiness. I wonder if it'll produce more smiles from solvers or groans.

But overall, some nice feature entries.

Sat 6/10/2017
MENACHEMABLAZE
APOLLOVILOOSED
HOTTOWELTAXING
ACHENEIBISAMI
THEREITEMETON
MARSDNATESTING
ALEBEARATTACK
HAPPYMEAL
TEASEAPARTJAW
DOGKENNELSMUSH
INGEDINESANKA
ENDSECSBARKAT
TARZANICEGIANT
EGOISTOGEEARCH
DEPTHSNINTHTEE

It's so tough to do low word-count themelesses well. Few constructors dip into the 66-word territory, and for good reason — it's incredibly difficult to produce a puzzle that's both snazzy and smooth. Most tend to run on the dull side, with a lot of neutral entries, or they feel like they're packed with made-up sounding -ER or RE- words, or they're gloppy with crossword glue.

I think Mark did a nice job today, particularly in the middle of the puzzle, given the level of difficulty there — so many outstanding entries filling that eye-poppingly huge swath of white squares. DNA TESTING stacked atop BEAR ATTACK and HAPPY MEAL, along with DOG KENNEL — such great material!

And running through all those were even more top-notch entries like MILITARY PENSION, BETA MALE (wow, that was tough to parse! Not sure why I kept reading it as BE TAMALE …), and IN A PANIC (crossing BEAR ATTACK!). All of that, held together by fine short material like SECS, ITEM, IBIS; not a dab of crossword glue in sight. Very well done.

I can see why Mark sectioned off the NW and SE corners — such gigantic areas are borderline untenable if you can't work on them independently of the rest of the puzzle. I did like the overall results, generally pretty smooth and professional, but entries like EPOCHAL, NOT HERE, and OGEE ARCH don't do a lot for me. NINTH TEE also felt a tad arbitrary, but I guess it's as valid as SEVEN IRON or other such golf terms.

Great cluing potential for MENACHIM — dang it, MENACHEM! (I was 100% sure it was the former.) MENACHEM Begin just begs to be used with clever wordplay, misdirecting to the verb "begin." Today's clue, [Begin at the beginning?] tried hard, but it didn't quite do it for me. "Beginning" does suggest "first name," but I would have preferred something that didn't require a telltale question mark. Perhaps like [Begin founding a political party].

Finally, some great mid-length entries like WHAT THE…, ZEN MONK, EGG DROP, JUNK ART. Overall, a solving experience much better than the average low-word-count experience.

Sun 6/11/2017THINK TWICE
GOFASTHOMERABASHED
OMEGASFINALESOTHERE
BASEBALLTERMSSTROBES
INTELAIMSHEEHAW
SEABEEFROSTEBBS
VFWBOSCIAOSBORROW
ELEANORHANDTOOLSIRA
REARERARKSLICDAY
GETSATDRIGRENADA
ETHERCAROMLEADROLE
SEENFAMOUSPOETSTTYL
DRIVERODNORSETEHEE
WOOLENSSIENADIRS
GTOILEALIEIDONOT
ORRCARDSUITSSPANGLE
SUDSESOTROSBOASLR
HESATRAINTENTHS
LINEARIAGOOPALS
ALLOWINMEANSOFTRAVEL
DIAMONDALCOTTUNDONE
ESSENESPLANEBYENOW

THINK TWICE played upon, giving a circle of objects linked together by commonalities. I couldn't keep up with all the cross-referencing, so here's a listing:

BASEBALL TERMS: HOMER and DIAMOND

CARD SUITS: DIAMOND and SPADE

HAND TOOLS: SPADE and PLANE

MEANS OF TRAVEL: PLANE and TRAIN

BRIDAL THINGS: TRAIN and SHOWER

WEATHER WORDS: SHOWER and FROST

FAMOUS POETS: FROST and HOMER

There did feel like a lot of (minor) dabs of crossword glue — AGEES BOS ERE DES LIC ELL ALIE/AURI HEB HESA, etc. — the sheer quantity of which usually would make me wince. But this is a notoriously difficult construction, given how many "themers" there are. I've highlighted them below so you get a better picture of just how much real estate was inflexible. It's a constructor's nightmare!

Given that constraint, I think Charles did pretty well with his execution. Not sure that so many theme answers could have been filled around much more smoothly.

The question in my mind was, would this concept have been better in a non-crossword format? It's an interesting word circle (chain?), with some creative links. But I think an NPR on-air puzzle, $20,000 Pyramid format, or some other medium (NYT variety puzzle, perhaps?) would have served the idea much more strongly than a crossword.

Granted, I'm heavily biased against cross-referencing clues in general — x-refs break up my solving flow, forcing me to jump around all over the puzzle — but wow, this required SO much cross-referencing. I honestly tried to follow along for the first couple of theme clues, but I soon gave up.

I'm not sure I would have bothered to go back and look at the full word circle if I hadn't wanted to analyze it here, and that would have been a shame. The basic idea was an interesting twist on a standard word chain/circle.

Mon 6/12/2017
ADEPTALSOUPON
HAVEIDAUBVILE
ALIENODDSUNDO
BILLYCRYSTAL
TOEAMATOL
JOLTINSPCAIRE
ALARMRAULJULIA
MESOPENNEVEES
JOHNCANDYBERNE
ALEARTYBEASTS
RESORTFOR
BOYMEETSGIRL
HALEIONAERNIE
ALASNAYSRIFFS
JIBEGNATKNOTS

Neat idea, BOY MEETS GIRL interpreted as "famous men with a last name that's also a girl's name." RAUL JULIA is perfect, as JULIA is a common enough girl's name. CRYSTAL didn't come immediately to me as a girl's name, but of course there's CRYSTAL Gayle, the country singer.

CANDY … this one didn't work for me. I tried to find a good example of a famous woman named Candy, but Wikipedia failed me. Who knows, maybe there'll be a surge in girls getting named CANDY in the future? ADDED NOTE: Nancy Shack points out that CANDY Spelling, widow of Aaron Spelling and mother of Tori Spelling, should qualify based on her media exposure.

It would have been nice to get one other strong themer. Any one that Dan mentioned would added a ton of impact to the puzzle.

With just four themers — and two of them being only nine letters — I expect a super-clean grid, packed with jazzy long fill. I did like the bonuses of TINY TIM, BERSERK, even OBSTACLE, as I'm a big "American Ninja Warrior" fan. Pretty darn good in that regard.

AMATOL and BERNE, though. Hmm. Chemistry was one of my favorite subjects in school, but AMATOL feels pretty reachy, especially for what's supposed to be a puzzle that could attract novices. And the French spelling of Bern was odd, too.

I could have let those two slide, but then I ran into the ARTY ("artsy" feels more in-the-language to me) / CARO (tough foreign word) section. It may seem nit-picky to point these things out, but for a grid with not that much theme constraints, the grid ought to be silky smooth.

Here's an interesting constructor's dilemma: you can either 1.) have a long bonus entry in OBSTACLE, or you can 2.) shift the black squares above AMAJ one column to the left, which lets the NE corner connect better to the rest of the puzzle. Which is better?

Not sure of the right answer, but I would have tried the second option, along with rejiggering the black squares in the middle of the puzzle so that the solver would still get a long bonus down (one column to the right of OBSTACLE). I think that would have worked, given the lowish theme density.

Overall, a fun, fresh concept, always appreciated on a Monday. But it did feel thin, needing at least one more strong theme example, preferably two.

POW Tue 6/13/2017
WORMLESSGRETA
AREAAMTSLUXOR
LIPSBEESTUDENT
LOOKHEREATOM
ELSALINESLPGA
TEEBILLDEEFLAT
IREWARMAPE
SONGDIMPURE
DEFEDENJRS
EXFILESCUEBERT
STIRCIGARSNEE
CIAOEPISODES
GEESTRINGSPULL
EGRETROUTARIA
MOSSYSANSLENS

★ Always such a treat to get Lynn's byline. She's an absolute wizard on early-week puzzles, producing fun themes surrounded by excellent long bonus fill, and a silky-smooth solve.

Homophone themes have been done many a time, and even homophones on letters of the alphabet. But I don't remember seeing this exact implementation. As a huge Q*BERT fan in my youth, it was fun to see CUE BERT as a kooky indication to signal BERT (from "Sesame Street"). And GEE, STRINGS amused this former cellist.

I paused at TEE BILL, having to think too hard to figure out the base phrase of "t-bill," a government bond. Embarrassing, given that I got my MBA with a focus in finance. Ahem.

I didn't like DEE FLAT as much, either, this one so grammatically tortured. Since Lynn had so many themers already, I would have preferred that one struck out, and EX FILES put in the center of the middle row.

Speaking of theme density, this grid didn't have quite the same astonishing level of snazz and smoothness that I've come to expect from a Lempel product. EXEMPLAR was fun, but JURISTS jarred my ear. Some research shows that it is a very common word in law, but I'd so much rather have something exciting, like LOOK HERE! or CAP GUN.

And it's odd to point out just a handful of AMTS, JRS, ATTY as more crossword glue than usual for a Lempel puzzle, but she's just that good.

Why not as much snazz and a bit more glue than usual? Six themers is not easy to work with, even if four of them are short — as a whole, they take up so much real estate. This is another reason I would have preferred just five themers — I'm sure it would have allowed for at least another pair of strong bonuses in the fill, and given Lynn the flexibility to smooth out one or two of those unsightly short entries.

But overall, such a fun solving experience. Not all themes have to be ground-breaking — a twist on a tried and true theme type can work great when you execute well on your grid. I thought Lynn did well today. Maybe not quite up to her (very high) bar, but still such an enjoyable early-week solve.

Wed 6/14/2017
NOVATAUACTUP
STARWARSCHABAD
FRITOPIEHERETO
WONMIDDLEMARCH
PANEESLSHA
ASLANTSOAP
RHAPSODYINBLUE
METAROOATTA
DECISIONPOINTS
YOKEINDEEP
ITONESBEES
MYSWEETLORDMRS
UPCASTGOOGLEIT
SEANCEBYGEORGE
ARDORTAIBEAM

BY GEORGE, it's theme entries that are "things written by a person named George." Fun idea. I liked the consistent cluing style of "year of work" + "last name" + "type of work." STAR WARS was an obvious one for this sci-fi ubergeek, and I even recognized MIDDLEMARCH — nice touch to feature a woman in what would otherwise have been a male-dominated puzzle.

(George Eliot was Mary Anne Evans' pen name.)

DECISION POINTS didn't come easy, nor did MY SWEET LORD, but they do seem crossworthy. (The latter more so, after the melody came back to me.)

Working with an eight-letter revealer can be surprisingly tricky. That's because revealers usually are best placed at the end of a puzzle, in row 13, forcing a big white space on the opposite side. Check out the roughly 6x5 chunk of space in the lower left — not easy to fill such a big swath well.

Andrew wisely added a cheater square in the very lower left (note: some editors hate this aesthetic), but these two corners still are the toughest part of the puzzle to fill. The lower left is pretty good, with just the tough IONESCO (not to be confused with ENESCO) and the odd UPCAST.

The opposite corner … SHA is a minor ding. ESL is okay. ACHESON crossing CHABAD crossing DOHA, though. Oof. I think all world capitals are fair game. But I don't know if it's fair to expect solvers to remember the spelling of Dean ACHESON's name, or to know the CHABAD organization. That crossing could be a killer for some poor solvers.

There's also more crossword glue than I expect from Andrew's work, ARIDE, YOO, ETTE / ATTA. That's because of the high theme density though — ETTE and ATTA are directly attributable to having to work with the ends of RHAPSODY IN BLUE and DECISION POINTS, for example. Perhaps one fewer themer would have been a better trade-off, although RHAPSODY IN BLUE is peskily an even number of letters, so it can't go in the middle of a 15x15 grid.

Overall, a neat concept. I might have given it the POW! if all the themers felt more like master opuses in the vein of STAR WARS. (Thank goodness THE PHANTOM MENACE is too long for a normal crossword grid!)

Thu 6/15/2017
JOKEHAMMSLIAR
OPELEMAILINCA
BELTHARRYPSAT
LORETTASWIT
SYNEEINADAM
TAGLAUNDRYNAM
RIREBRIARSTRO
IDEATESHOWIN
CHERIOPPOPINE
KINMANILOWNAY
TIMECARDS
THEDIRTYDOZEN
POOPSOUSEEXIT
OJAISORERLPNS
WORDMETLOOK

Who would have guessed that there are 12 phrases having DIRTY as a first word? Some cool finds like (dirty) RAT, (dirty) LIAR, (dirty) MARTINI helping to play on THE DIRTY DOZEN. I've highlighted the twelve "dirty" entries below to help them stand out. Neat that they're symmetrical!

Some of the theme answers worked better than others for me. (dirty) JOB, yes! (dirty) WORD, hmm ... passable. (dirty) LAUNDRY, yes! (dirty) MONEY … okay, but not as great as (dirty) HARRY. Granted that Richard needed 12 phrases to pull this one off, I thought he did well overall with the theme, especially considering that he found 12 that could be worked in symmetrically.

So much inflexibility in the grid. I had a feeling something odd was going on when I started the puzzle with OPE crossing OPEL. Not a great result, but also not unexpected, considering JOKE and JOB were fixed firmly into place.

SLYS and RIRE quickly followed. Hmm.

And those two lower corners. With THE DIRTY DOZEN creating an inflexible ceiling, and WORD and LOOK creating inflexible floors, it wasn't a surprise to get TOJO (I like seeing him in crosswords about as much as I do NAZI), OJAI, HOAR, and then SZELL crossing LPNS, which doesn't seem fair to me. No bueno for the poor solvers who don't know their former conductors (and shouldn't have to).

I bet changing the placements of WORD and LOOK could have helped; moving them up one row, switching them, etc. A tough set of constraints to work with, but also a lot of possibilities in where those 12 short answers could go.

But I did appreciate some nice fill in INSTANT WIN and KELLY GREEN, even LORETTA SWIT (although I did wonder for a second if (dirty) LORETTA SWIT was a thing). Helped to make up for some of the flaws in the short fill.

Overall, a nice idea that would have played better earlier in the week — I like something more tricky out of a Thursday puzzle.

Fri 6/16/2017
TWISTSBATTED
RANCHOSOTHERE
ARTIERBOOTCAMP
CTRYESICANTIE
THUDLEGITMANN
SODOICIAFAXED
GENDERFLUID
SALVEMRRED
HEATSENSORS
ANGUSSADTUPAC
RAREYASIRTESH
OPIBAUHAUSPHI
MALLORCASLIPIN
ALLGONESAVEME
SMEARSOVERIT

Neat middle section, with four strong feature entries: GENDER FLUID, HEAT SENSORS (maybe a bit less exciting than the others, but this mechanical engineer likes it, anyway), SOCIAL MEDIA, SECRET SAUCE. A puzzle like this can live or die based on the strength of its long feature entries, so I thought C.C. did well here.

It's a shame that C.C. got scooped on GENDER FLUID, but kudos to Will and Joel for spacing this puzzle out so that there was enough time between these puzzles. It's not easy to keep track of things like this, but this solver much appreciates the effort.

(I have a themeless in the queue featuring one of C.C.'s four feature entries — I usually don't like having to wait months and months to see my puzzles in print, but in this case, I'd welcome it!)

Excellent work on the short fill today, everything doing its job by not being noticeable. SCI is easy to overlook, and the only one that I hitched on was OPI. Tough for me to judge what nail polish brands are popular, but considering my 2.5-year old is curious about mom's lip pencils, perhaps I ought to hold OPI in memory. (Sigh.)

Where I thought C.C. shined in this puzzle was in her mid-length fill. This particular grid layout, featuring big stairsteps of black squares, is heavy on those 6- and 7-letter entries and that often worries me, since these can be tough to convert to snazzy material. But stuff like TEA TAX, WARTHOG, ALL GONE, SO THERE, even BIG IF = excellent bonuses. And single-word answers can often be dull, but BAUHAUS and SASHIMI are good additions.

And some constructors lean all too heavily on "+ preposition" phrases to fill out those mid-length entries. SLIP IN and BOO AT aren't going to win any prizes, so it's great to see this type of entry limited to just these two.

Entertaining, smooth solve. If there had been a couple more feature entries of the caliber of SECRET SAUCE, this would have gotten the POW! The bar for themeless puzzles is so high these days.

Sat 6/17/2017
PESTLEBEATIT
ANTOINEAVEENO
STRUDELSBERATE
TIERSLIDAROSE
IRANTILERSDRS
SEMIBREVEOTARU
QUAKERSELON
SCHUYLERSISTERS
ILIEAMATEUR
TESTSPRAGMATIC
ZAPEDERLEHOMO
RAGNAROKBERRA
IONIANWEMADEIT
QUINTERATRACE
STASESDEATHS

It used to be that most every themeless puzzle was a standard "four sets of stacks, one in each corner." I like the recent push toward big, open middles. Something cool about that swath of white space smack dab in the center. DEERSTALKER was my favorite long entry through there, as I'm a huge Holmes fan. I couldn't remember SILVER ARROW off the top, but what a neat brand name.

And what a way to debut! Making these types of wide-open middles is hard enough with some computer assistance here and there — to do it by hand is daunting.

I've seen all of "The Office" and two seasons of "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," but I couldn't remember ELLIE KEMPER's name. Rats! I wonder if it would be different if the latter show had been on a major network instead of Netflix-only.

Two years ago at the ACPT, people started talking (gushing, actually) about "Hamilton." This dummy had no idea what they were talking about, but I sure do now. Even the SCHUYLER SISTERS rings a bell now (although I still don't know exactly who they are). Amazing how "Hamilton" has exploded. I often don't care for proper names that you either know or you don't, but if they're huge enough in pop culture, they're fair game.

Sara TEASDALE was tough for me to piece together — thank goodness I'm a huge "Music Man" fan (LIDA ROSE is a classic for me). But I wonder if that crossing might trip up a good chunk of solvers. I could see the case for calling that an unfair crossing.

I'm also a huge fan of Norse mythology, so RAGNAROK was a gimme for me. Thank goodness it didn't cross EDERLE though — the exact spelling (for both of them!) is tough to remember.

Along with OTARU and ANTOINE, that is a ton of tough proper names. I don't mind when a puzzle has a lot of proper names. It's when many of them could be called esoteric that it starts to feel like too much.

And QUINTE, SEMIBREVE … that makes for a lot of learning and education in one puzzle.

Thank goodness that this puzzle ran on a Saturday, the toughest day of the week. A lot of stuff I didn't know, a lot of learning I did along the way, a good educational experience. And a huge relief to have solved it correctly. I didn't have high confidence that Mr. Happy Pencil would appear.

Impressive to debut this way — wide-open middles are so tough to construct. I'm looking forward to seeing what Ryan can do with the assistance of some modern tools.

Sun 6/18/2017SILENT TREATMENT
ORANGSPSALIPSUTES
LOQUATANTIAVIAROMO
DOUBLEKNOTSRACYGOAL
PTAERNOILTANKSERIE
ARCSEASPRAYIMOKELM
LOADOVULEGIVESADAMN
STRAWELIBAMVOLE
TRYFOALPACMAN
RENAISSANCEFAIRETGEL
APOSTLETHEIDEABOCA
BOOTSMASSTREEBETAS
IDNOAPRIORIPRECAST
DEERREIGNINGMONARCHS
ALGRENAGEEADU
IAGOELSTADSEGAR
AFTERHOURSGODELLURE
NOWDOWNABOVEPARIMS
DROZNEONTUBEOYENYT
OGREEDDATAROTSPREAD
NESTSTOPSLIPURBANA
ETTATOSSDTSPOINTY

Silent letters have been played upon in many crosswords, but there's still room for a new twist. I like what Sam did today, featuring base phrases turned into kooky ones when the silent letter is ignored. I laughed at GIVES A DAM(N), giving a handout to the downtrodden beavers. I had heard RENAISSANCE FA(I)RE used with this wordplay before, but it's still fun to think about giant turkey legs waved about.

I hadn't heard of a TAROT SPREAD. Apparently, it's the way a reader spreads out … tarot cards? Not sure it's snazzy enough to work as a featured theme answer. It didn't resonate with me nearly as well as the others.

Given that there are so many words with silent letters — and also so many phrases using words with silent letters — I appreciated that Sam spelled out something with those key letters. KNIGHT is sort of appropriate given that it also has a silent letter — how meta! — but it didn't have quite the a-ha moment of brilliance that I was hoping for. Hmm.

Sam executed so well on his grid, keeping his crossword glue to just minor nits like ERN, ARIE, TGEL, OYE, DTS. One could argue that some of these are perfectly fine. GOTAC (GOT A C) felt a bit arbitrary, but again, one could make a case that C students are the most common type of students, if grading is done on a bell curve.

And some outstanding bonus entries, DATA STORAGE, THE IDEA!, DON'T BE CRUEL, NEON TUBE elevating my solve. SNOOP LION too! (Apologies to the rap haters out there.) Going from Snoop Dogg to SNOOP LION (and back?) is interesting.

Finally, an outstanding clue for PAC-MAN. It's already a great entry, but it's raised even further clued as one "following the dotted lines." A single clue like that can make an entire puzzle so memorable.

Fun theme, if not quite different enough from other silent letter puzzles for my taste. But Sam's strong execution helped to make my solve enjoyable.

POW Mon 6/19/2017
HOPIGALLSSLOG
ALANABOUTWAVE
JIGSLEONEIMAN
IVEROTTENAPPLE
SETTERSCUE
URGETHINSKIN
PARISSHALTETE
LYNXDUETSBLEW
OLEGRIMEBALMS
PARFAITSBONY
LILVINEGAR
URBANLEGENDRTE
VOOMBLINGDEAL
EASEISSUEJERI
ARCSTETESSNIT

★ Susie is quickly becoming one of my favorite constructors. With clever themes, strong bonus fill, and minimal use of crossword glue, my only complaint is that she only publishes one or two NYT puzzles a year these days. More please!

Even though my knowledge of pop music is sorely lacking, this theme still delighted me. Love the idea of a marketing team coming up with the genius idea of a double bill, Keith URBAN and John LEGEND headlining as URBAN LEGEND. Same goes for Johnny ROTTEN and Fiona APPLE advertised as ROTTEN APPLE. So amusing, and perfect that Susie found four strong, common phrases that work in this way.

I did pause at KELLY GREEN, as I wasn't familiar with Tori KELLY, but I think that's my pop music deficiencies to blame, not the puzzle.

The "windmill" layout of themers often doesn't allow for much long bonus fill (it tends to confuse what is theme and what is fill), but Susie managed to work in some good stuff. Love DRILL BIT, THIN SKIN is good (thin skinned feels better), and STENCILS and PARFAIT ain't bad. Not a huge amount, but enough to pass my bar.

There was an AYLA (I don't think novice solvers should be expected to know this) and an ETE (tough foreign word, and a constructor's crutch), but a tally of just two bits of crossword glue is much appreciated in a Monday puzzle.

Susie always graciously passes on adding her two cents via Constructor Notes, which is too bad, since I'm always curious to hear the constructor's perspective. But when your puzzle is this good, it speaks for itself.

One of my favorite Monday puzzles of the year.

Tue 6/20/2017
RISKSARONGDIM
INSISTSUPONCODA
MANCHESTERUNITED
KIWIONEAM
MISSISSIPPIDELTA
ARABSIMLATELEX
HOKUMPERISH
ICETCARATSIDOL
TALKEDAGING
AMPCUESTASHRUB
SOUTHBYSOUTHWEST
INTWODEBI
AIRPORTTERMINALS
NCISPRIDEANDJOY
SADMALAYSSAWS

Airlines played upon today, with MANCHESTER UNITED, MISSISSIPPI DELTA, SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST. The revealer didn't feel apt at first — I wondered why AIRPORT TERMINALS described these airlines? But TERMINAL meaning "ending" started to make more sense, hinting at the names of the airlines coming at the ends of the phrases.

Then I wondered, wouldn't AIRLINE TERMINALS be more descriptive of the theme? But that wouldn't work, as that's not a real phrase.

Sometimes I think about things way too much.

Jason has pushed the envelope on wide-open construction, having made puzzles as tough as quad-stack themelesses. He injects some of that experience today, stacking INSISTS UPON at the top, and PRIDE AND JOY at the bottom. Along with KICKS BUTT and HIGH WINDS, that makes for a lot of strong bonus material.

Usually, constructors would put a black square at the middle S of INSISTS UPON and the N of PRIDE AND JOY, making the grid much easier to fill. While I often like Jason's experimentation, I'm not sure it was a good thing today.

The top was pretty darn clean, with just an OPE as crossword glue. But INSISTS UPON is neutral filler material to me, not valuable.

And the bottom … a minor TRA is no problemo. SYS, same deal. Add in EDA, though. And AJA and TEMAS pushed it well over the edge for me. As much as I love PRIDE AND JOY, I didn't think the trade-off was worth it.

Maybe if this had been a more complicated theme, nudging the puzzle toward later-week status, it would have been more acceptable? But early-week puzzles ought to be accessible for novices, and that lower right corner didn't have that elegant, smooth feeling.

Toss in TWPS (townships?), AKEY, and CUESTA, and it was way over my threshold for crossword glue. Not a polished solve.

But overall, a nice concept, a good attempt at using two meanings of TERMINAL. And although I didn't agree with the trade-offs made in the name of more bonus fill, I do like discussions sparked by constructors pushing limits.

Wed 6/21/2017
ORIGAMIMADAME
NANOBOTRUBITIN
DISROBEICECOLD
ANTEDMACKKNEW
THOSENAYERA
EARCDSITGUY
STEMDAWGLOONS
BUTTERFLY
OPRAHAREASWAK
BRASSKGBEVE
LOYSHECHAIN
IBOSMAYSAARON
GOVIRALHOTLINE
ENAMELSIHAVEIT
SOCIALMONARCH

Butterflies in today's grid! Sort of. If you turn your head 45 degrees. And squint. And stretch your imagination. Sure, why not?

Bruce has done a lot of grid art over the years, with A KITE and two bolts of ELECTRICTY the highlight for me. Just when you think grid art ideas have run dry … I'm curious what will come next.

Today's puzzle is a "word that can precede X" puzzle, a theme type that's gone by the wayside. But I do like the tie-in to the four butterflies in the grid, making MADAME Butterfly, SOCIAL butterfly, and MONARCH butterfly a little more interesting.

ORIGAMI butterfly didn't work for me, though. Having made a ton of origami, and even spending time at origami museums in Japan, the butterfly isn't at the top of the list of origami animals. I understand that the gods of crossword symmetry must be honored, but it would have been better to hide this entry in the center of the puzzle somewhere, rather than placing it at the featured 1-Across position.

Great fill, especially tough with big, wide-open corners. Working with so many seven-letter answers makes it tough to convert those slots into strong entries. NANOBOT, RUB IT IN, HOTLINE, I HAVE IT, GO VIRAL, PRO BONO = Bruce did very well.

Okay, ON DATES isn't great. ENDWAYS is a head-scratcher, but it does appear to be legit. If those are the prices to pay to get so much good bonus fill, I'm happy to pony up.

Good work on the short fill, too. I hitched on MUCKY, but that also has dictionary support. With just a bit of minor CDT and UHS (and I generally think those are fine), it felt like a smooth, well-polished solve.

Overall, I liked the creativity of the grid art, and I thought Bruce executed well on his grid. The theme didn't move me though; not different enough from the old "word that can precede" theme type. And those butterflies didn't look enough like butterflies to me — I wish the print version could have been artsified so those black squares actually looked like butterflies. Damn the crossword gods and their perfect little boxes!

*ducking from the impending bolts of electricity*

Thu 6/22/2017
SHOGIASHEGEAR
IOWANREADORSO
GLENSOUTDOORSY
HANDPASSHAND
HAZESEILAT
STNICKOBADIAH
CHIEARSMILEEAR
ORCABUYINAIME
TOESTANDTOENAE
TANKINGCLASPS
STEADAPHID
FACEMEETFACE
CESTLAVIEIRINA
ALEERESTSELES
TSARELSATESTY

I have to admit; I didn't completely grok the theme until well after I finished. EARSMILEEAR is a literal representation of "smile from ear to ear." But I hitched on TOESTANDTOE, not quite seeing the connection to "stand toe to toe," or how FACEMEETFACE meant "meet face to face." Don't these more imply "stand from toe to toe" and "meet from face to face"?

And HANDPASSHAND ... I think that's "pass from hand to hand," which does seem like good wordplay. But the base phrase didn't immediately jump to mind. I'd happily put SMILE FROM EAR TO EAR in a themeless crossword, but PASS FROM HAND TO HAND would make me hesitate, wondering if that was strong enough.

I like that Ruth pushed her word count down to 72, helping to make the puzzle feel more like a tough, late-week puzzle. The middle O of OUTDOORSY would usually be a black square, for example, and opening that up lets Ruth work in both OUTDOORSY and GOOD IDEA, strong additions. The price of EDDA (tough bit of trivia) was well worth it for me.

It also gave her a lot of seven-letter slots to work with, and Ruth used most of them well. As a huge Harry Potter fan, AZKABAN delighted me (and Ruth made sure every crossing was fair, for you poor muggles). I like Juliette BINOCHE too, and OBADIAH is an interesting Biblical name. Some might argue that crossing these two propers is unfair, but I think all educated solvers ought to at least heard of one or the other.

I paused at IN SPACE. The clue, referring to the show "Lost in Space," made it feel like a long partial, a huge violation of the specs most editors hold to. Can IN SPACE stand on its own? Tough call. At best, I didn't feel like it added much to the puzzle.

I like it when Thursday puzzles have tricksy elements to them. This one made a good attempt, but it didn't resonate with me. Instead of a fantastic a-ha moment, it was more of a slow process of trying to understand the concept. Still, a generally smooth and well-executed grid with some nice bonuses.

Fri 6/23/2017
AMMOSWEATPANTS
ROANHOWDOILOOK
NODSONEMANARMY
ESCAPELIDSMBA
SHALEWARYCART
SUPERDOMECORAL
CARBCANADA
BATCAVECARKEYS
UNHOLYIRAN
STEVESPINALTAP
TIREBLABGARTH
APOCRUDPEPITA
GOOGOOGAGADAIS
UPTOWNGIRLOGLE
TESTSCORESGEAR

So much goodness packed into this themeless! Big corners like the upper right and lower left, with their stacks intersecting stacks, are notoriously hard to fill with snazzy material and a minimum of crossword glue. That upper right sizzles, all six long entries oh so good.

Well, the hated TOM BRADY being the exception. Grumble grumble says this Seahawks fan.

With every single short answer perfectly fine, that's stellar work.

Speaking of stellar, I even liked SKY ATLAS. Not only is it a neat term that this astronomy nerd liked learning, but it's easy to get from the crossings, as both words are recognizable as astronomy-related terms.

The lower left was also entertaining, but it didn't quite catch my attention like the upper right. BUST A GUT and UPTOWN GIRL are both fine answers, but both have a bit of an old-timey feel to them. I suppose the latter is a classic, immediately recognizable even to this pop music idiot.

The crossing of APO and THE ROOTS ... APO (Army post office) is going to be three random letters to some solvers, and THE ROOTS could easily be THE RIOTS. No bueno. It left me with a 50-50 guess, and thankfully, I guessed right. A case could be made that THE ROOTS is a big enough name that I ought to have known it. But I think while JIMMY FALLON and the TONIGHT SHOW are must-know names for educated solvers (even QUESTLOVE), I don't think THE ROOTS passes that bar.

Along with the toughie PERCALE, that corner didn't make as good an impression as the opposite one. Still, it's pretty darn strong--GOO GOO GA GA made this dad laugh--if you can overlook the big flaw.

I was leaning toward giving this one the POW!, what with all the fantastic SPINAL TAP, SUPERDOME, ANTIPOPE type answers to accompany the aforementioned. But there was another hiccup for me, the clue for OGLE: [Look at on the beach, say]. Ick. Ick. Again, ick. Why clue it that way when there are so many less creepy ways to do it?

Overall, 95% of the puzzle had me nodding and smiling. Too bad about that remaining 5%.

Sat 6/24/2017
OAKSADDTODOLE
NEETCREAKIBAR
TREESTUMPSALAN
HOPETOGODODILE
ESALENLASVEGAS
MOWERMINCEMEAT
ALARFATCATS
PSYSALIENTCAD
SAVIORSNOLA
HOMELOANSFORTY
IDITARODBOXSET
NESTSBELOWZERO
GLUEPARALLELED
EASEAMBLEMEGA
DYESYAYASATOY

Love that wide-open middle, highlighted by the awesome DEMOLITION DERBY. That answer is elevated even further by such a great clue — of course, a DEMOLITION DERBY would require a "crash course"! Along with TAP DANCERS misdirecting toward business-type instead of dance-type companies, MINCEMEAT, FATCATS, IDITAROD, that's a lot to admire.

I wondered if MALIA OBAMA was crossworthy. Of course, her first name gets used all the time in crosswords, and first family members are fair game. But I think about Michelle Obama's reaction to her kids being listed in 25 Most Influential Teens." Great quote: "They have done nothing to gain any influence." So, I personally wouldn't use either full name in a themeless, unless it served to hold other stronger entries together.

So much of the puzzle was nice and clean. If it hadn't been for a few offenders ... but some of the offenders are serious red flags. Stu pointed it out already: BOLES to me is a Maleskan-era puzzle-killer, a throwback to the bad old days of crosswords where only people who memorized dozens of crossword-specific terms could even attempt them. Just as with ESNE or ADIT, I wouldn't have let a puzzle be published with BOLES.

Crosswords have come a long way over the years, and terms like this need to be left behind in order to build new audiences.

Minor dabs of crossword glue like LA LA, A TOY, SALAS (Spanish for "rooms"), STER are par for the course when it comes to wide-open white spaces. These days, however, the bar for themelesses is so high that it felt like the grid wasn't that polished. I would have happily given up TREE STUMPS, breaking up that answer by placing a black square at the first S, in order to get rid of STER, ESALEN (especially with the rough OVETT and ODILE — crossing each other! — already in the grid), and ALAR.

So many great long entries, HOPE TO GOD, BELOW ZERO, playing KEEPAWAY, ALTER EGO, etc. A shame about the little flaws to go along with the really big one.

Sun 6/25/2017CROPPED
SPENTMICANARCOVATE
POLARACLUOVERNIGEL
RIFLEROOTPONESLUNK
ASIANLONGHORNEDBELE
YENCEOSOSOILSA
CHANTRABBITTNORA
FOURCRERSKLIDOSCOPIC
ATSEADELLMOORAVAST
SHEATHKYOTOBALKS
TERMASKFORTBALL
SRSNATIONALARCIEPCS
ESSEXDONATECARE
DETOXLEANNSTONED
INEPTAAREMIDIORATE
SYMPTMTLOGYCOSMORMER
CAPOUNCTIONNOOIL
NAVESKISPOTTSA
VEGETABLESHORTENING
AMONGILYASAKEAIDAN
GOTTIMEETAMENSCARE
OBESEESSENUDEYELLS

Rebus today, VEGETABLE SHORTENING interpreted as "cramming the theme vegetables into two-letter chunks." I'm a huge "Seinfeld" fan, so OKRA inside COSM(O K)(RA)MER was fun. Neat how it breaks OKRA across two words, too — I usually think across-word-breaks are more interesting than within-word finds, but I did like SYMP(TO)(MA)(TO)LOGY. Neat discovery!

Before I get flooded with mail, yes, I also noticed that there was a huge flaw, that TOMATO is a fruit, not a vegetable. I was just about to write Frank (Longo, one of Will's fact checkers) when I learned that they're considered "culinary vegetables." It still doesn't sit right for me, but it's not technically 100% incorrect. Enough wiggle room to let this one by. Perhaps.

Nice construction, mostly Stulbergian execution (a lot of interesting long fill and not many short gluey bits). I especially liked how he ran some long answers through the rebus squares, TRENCH(CO)AT and NO PROB(LE)MO my favorites. Typically, rebus squares are executed with short crossing answers like LEA(RN), as this constrains the grid much less than something like TO(OK) IT EASY taking up so much real estate.

I didn't like was the BRANDON / MIDI crossing. I don't mind a lot of proper names in a puzzle, but when they're toughies like NIGEL, HAAS, RABBITT, allowing for the possible error of BRANNON seems underhanded. I even watched some 90210 (I'll never admit that if pressed) and still got that square wrong. Maybe a more direct clue where MIDI and MINI weren't both valid.

Fun solve, although the gimmick didn't have the staying power to keep my attention through a 21x grid. I'm a bit rebused out these days, but a 15x grid would have kept me entertained, given the apt revealer lending a strong reason for the rebus squares. Too bad VEGETABLE SHORTENING wouldn't fit in a 15x!

Mon 6/26/2017
BLASTSERECT
ALASKANGETOUT
THEPHILOSOPHERS
BOSSREBATEDNA
ATTESTWIN
ASPSSTALLS
ASLANETATKEEN
GHIJKROWLINGO
AURALENOENDOW
STEREOELLA
NYEAPPLET
ABADARWINRIFE
DANIELRADCLIFFE
ASNEATSNEEZES
HARRYPOTTER

HARRY / POTTER! Hard to believe it's been 20 years since the initial (British) release. The series is a large part of why I started writing middle-grade books — my brother once said how sad he was, that there might never be anything as good as this series. I like me a challenge!

Speaking of a challenge, such a lot of thematic material packed in today. I enjoyed HARRY / POTTER snuck in at the very bottom, each word sneakily clued in non-Harry Potter ways.

AS NEAT (that feels too much like a verboten six-letter partial, BTW) as it was to get DANIEL RADCLIFFE over HARRY / POTTER, there were some trade-offs to make this work. Early-week puzzles usually depend on two sets of vertical black square bars on the bottom of a grid to make filling easier — having just one (between AS NEAT and SNEEZES) is a rough construction challenge. Besides AS NEAT, there's an IER and the odd EFFS.

That's not great, but not terrible either. I wouldn't have minded those prices to pay, except that there were already so many other gluey bits. I'm not sure why JK / ROW / LING gets split across the middle, but GHIJK is ... not good. That'd be a puzzle-killer for me. Along with AHOT, BLEST, ETH in the top of the grid, and a rough-for-newbies crossing in ASLAN / AGAS, it's too much for my taste.

I would have been fine with less thematic material, perhaps with THE PHILOSOPHERS / STONE intersecting smack dab in the middle, HARRY POTTER 11 and JKROWLING 9, using a mirror (left-right) grid layout.

The tough grid layout did allow for some nice bonuses like LOYALTY (Gryffindor!) and EGOTIST (Slytherin!). And ALASKAN got a great clue, "detached state" making me laugh.

As a huge fan, I like the 20-year tribute. But I wish it had been a smoother product for a Monday.

*Reparo!*

Tue 6/27/2017
SHAHCROONCPAS
PACAHIPPOARNO
ETALAFTERREAL
WHIFFOFSCANDAL
LESSOIL
SUITADSLOGAN
FANFAVORITEEMO
OLDEAUTRYRBIS
USESTRIKEFORCE
LARGESSEESAI
WAGOKIE
GODOWNSWINGING
WORFEATINOKAY
BILLSPANKLEAR
ANDYTANGYDANE

Easy-breezy hidden synonym theme, WHIFF, FAN, STRIKE all relating to striking out. I did check-swing on this theme concept at first, given that WHIFF and STRIKE are a single swing and miss, while FAN is a strikeout.

Then I realized that there are three synonyms … and in total, they're more or less three strikes, which equals GO DOWN SWINGING! Clever. (The puzzle, that is, not me, given how long it took me to figure that out. Probably ought to pull me for a reliever.)

John threw some heat in his bonus material, HALFLIFE, UNDERWORLD, ROSE GOLD, and PREALGEBRA good to great. With four themers — even if they're longish — it's almost always possible to work in four long bonus downs in staggered positions. Easy formula: spread out your four themers, spread out your four long downs, test liberally to make sure every section is fillable, and you're done!

It's not that easy of course, but it's a tried and true formula.

I also liked the changeup, John using a couple of long bonuses in the across direction. AD SLOGAN and LARGESSE are great entries. Most constructors don't do this type of thing because it can put a ton of strain on a grid, resulting in suboptimal short fill.

On that note, check out the east section. Constructors might typically put a black square at the O of CARDIO, helping to give that east region much more flexibility — with ADSLOGAN and PREALGEBRA fixed into place, there's not much wiggle room. AMICI is an odd word for an early-week puzzle, but as long as the crossings are fair, allowing most solvers a clean finish, I can give it a pass.

But AMICI crossing ESAI crossing FEIN … hmm, no bueno. I got those right because I do a ton of crosswords, but this isn't a good way to encourage newer solvers. I would have asked for a redo in that section alone and asked to smooth out WORF / WBA as well — even this Trekkie thinks it's not fair to expect people to know WORF.

Nice, novel concept, but I would have liked the grid tuned more toward early-week smoothness.

POW Wed 6/28/2017
UDDERASTIFLOP
NUEVOSCOWRIDE
HOWIWISHNATALIE
IMACVEENEUTER
PORTMANDATED
ENTLYSARP
ALAINIDOEVEL
JACQUESCOUSTEAU
ARESLYECARPS
RADSSNGPA
SOICOULDCALL
MCLEANUNEARLO
THEMPORTMANTEAU
GIGIRUDEBEAMS
SASSETONASSAY

★ I usually groan at quote puzzles, but I loved this one. Natalie Portman dating Jacques Cousteau would have produced the celeb portmanteau of … PORTMANTEAU! Quote puzzles need to pack a tremendous punch to make them worth all the real estate they take up. Today was a rare instance where I thought that was the case.

Nice job on a tough construction, too. 15 / 12 / 15 / 12 / 15 themer lengths is a punishing demand. No matter how you lay them out, there's going to be a lot of themer overlap you have to deal with.

David decided to take most of his pain in the upper left and lower right corners, where pairs of themers are dangerously close together. The upper left does suffer a bit with UNHIP (maybe I'm too unhip to say this?), DUOMO, DEWAR an esoteric trio. Along with NUEVO, it didn't make for the greatest start to the puzzle. Toss in SCHED, and that's about all the crossword glue I want in one puzzle.

Thankfully, the opposite corner came out clean as a whistle. Beautiful work there, not a drop of crossword glue in a region that had to work with difficult constraints — four parallel down answers having to thread through CALL and the end of PORTMANTEAU.

Elsewhere, there was only MTGS that stuck out. I might have placed a black square at the M of MCLEAN to smooth that out, but that's a judgment call. Overall, very good work in short fill considering the constraints.

Strong bonuses, too, with Uncle Sam's I WANT YOU and Shakespeare's ELSINORE weaving through three themers apiece. It's so hard to work in long bonuses when you have this much theme density, so the effort is appreciated.

Love the GPA clue too; Dean Wormer taking such pleasure in announcing Bluto's GPA as a 0.0. TEES also was nice, having their "home on the range" — the driving range, that is.

Funny/punny quote, good bonus fill with a smooth overall result. This is how a quote puzzle should be done.

Thu 6/29/2017
JACKSWHAMASTRO
ALOESHIYABARED
KENYAGIVEMEAHAND
EXECITEMUTANTS
ANGEPACERS
BAHRAINWASHAIMS
LEEDSEERRANTAT
AGAABRIDGEDIRR
MIDDLEMOLEBOLA
ESSEGHANAFLYNOW
HEALERSLAG
STAPLEDASUODES
TAKEMYWIFEBELIZE
ARENAIMAYPLAIN
BOSSYGORESYNOD

I'm terrible judging how good puns are since to be good, they sometimes must be bad. It's confusing. I liked GHANA FLY NOW as an amusing marketing slogan for a Ghanaian airline, but BAHRAIN WASH didn't make as much sense to me. But then again, are puns supposed to make sense?

It's no wonder that I've never gotten a pun theme accepted by any major crossword outlet.

Anyhoo, I like Rich's attempt to add in some good bonus fill in case the puns didn't tickle solvers' funny bones, or caused HEADSHAKES. A GLASS EYE, one of my favorite card games in EUCHRE, a TRANSITION, BY GOLLY! These all helped hold my attention.

And lil' ol' STAPLED usually would be a neutral element of the grid to me. But what a great clue, misdirecting to a "corner piece" of a brownie tray. Great fun.

Not fun was the crossword glue. I don't mind a few minor dings like ITE, EER, AGA. It's when they all pile up, with ESSE, MOL, ANGE, IRR, etc. ... nothing is terrible, but as a whole, it's over my threshold for elegance.

Since this was a straightforward theme type, tried and true, I would have preferred it to run on a Tues/Wed, and for the grid to be smoothed out at the cost of some of the nice long bonuses.

Still, I'm hoping that Air Ghana takes notice — Rich, trademark that gem already!

Fri 6/30/2017
SHAFTEDAPTZED
CARRACEGLUCOSE
ANNASUIRAMHOME
MOANSHAYMAKER
PIZZERIAEIRE
FLUSHDEMEAN
FAZEELANSOPPY
OVERDEFATFESS
MENDSTUDEFREE
ORGIESNIECE
ANALNANUNANU
VORACITYCSPAN
OLDNAVYBIKINIS
NEEDLERILOVELA
NONFROTOOEASY

I admire Damon's use of 14-letter entries. So tough to build around, since they automatically force placement of black squares, reducing flexibility right off the bat. I hadn't heard of CHARM OFFENSIVE before, but it was easily grokkable and a fun term to learn. FRANZ FERDINAND wasn't as interesting to me — he's no doubt crossworthy as a fuse for WWI — but it's tough to clue him in a clever way.

This puzzle isn't as segmented as it could be, but there are three sub-regions that are only connected by two answers apiece. Notice that once you drop in HAHA FUNNY and CHARM OFFENSIVE, you can work on the upper right region independently of the rest of the puzzle. It's a great boon for the constructor, but it's not great flow for the solver.

Still, having just two entries connecting a section is better than having only one. And it does allow Damon to do so well with that upper right. It's a huge swath of white space, daunting to fill. To weave in ZOOKEEPER, HAYMAKER and RAM HOME is excellent work.

I wish a few black squares had been moved to open up that corner, connecting it much more strongly to the rest of the puzzle — something like blackening in the ED of PLAYED and making the square after PIZZERIA white. But doing so would likely have weakened the corner's fill.

Never easy.

I liked how Damon kept his crossword glue to a minimum, just an ILO, ECU, OLEO and perhaps UNSAY. I was loving the puzzle, feeling like it might win my POW! what with all its great ZEN GARDEN sort of sizzling entries. But then I hit NANU NANU. Even as a "Mork and Mindy" fan in my youth, it feels dated to use as s feature entry. And HA HA FUNNY felt like it ought to be FUNNY HA HA, as per the old SNL sketch. Throw in a NEEDLER, I LOVE LA (a common constructor's crutch, given its friendly consonant/vowel alternation) and it didn't quite hit my threshold for a POW!-level themeless.

Still, generally well done and an entertaining solve.