★ Another beauty from Robyn — you bet I FANCY THAT! Not many constructors can work with 14 long slots (8+ letters) and convert them into 14 excellent entries. Editors prize multi-worders in themelesses, because they often have more zing than single-worders. CIRCULAR FILE and CRUNCH TIME are perfect examples, laden with meaning and imagery.
And the single-worders that Robyn did employ? This dork would gladly submit to the emotional terrors of pon farr if it meant a shot at joining STARFLEET.
DUTY-FREE SHOPS does double duty, too, as both a fantastic phrase and one that lends itself to a Starfleet admiral-level clue. "Non-taxing part of airline travel" wins a Medal of Excellence.
Themeless constructors often either allow too much glue or are too stringent at the cost of not enough color. Robyn has found the sweet spot, achieving top-notch pizazz at only nominal costs like STD and TUE.
I did have one hitch at the end of my solve, since I confidently wrote in BANTER for [Give and take]. My annoyance level was high; unable to figure out how ANC could match [Bow]. But when I finally corrected to BARTER, I appreciated what an interesting coincidence that is, BANTER and BARTER both aptly fitting that clue. Crossword theme radar pinging ...
I've raised my bar for Robyn because she's just that good. Today's surpassed even my final frontier expectations.
★ Back in my first career as a mechanical engineer in product design, I had a visionary idea for "chair pants." Tired? Crouch down, and the legs automatically pop out. Instant chair! All my coworkers mocked me mercilessly, but who's laughing now?!
(They still are.)
Neat visual: seven-letter musicals forming (most of) a chair. I'd have loved two black squares popping out to form the back legs — where the M and E of CHIME are, in the bottom left, for example — but it's hard to take me seriously, given that I'm walking around today with aluminum rods mounted into my sweatpants.
Although the chairs weren't as beautiful as my ahead-of-its-time invention, the execution was super solid. (Unlike my prototypes, which tend to buckle at inopportune moments.) It's so tough to work with fixed circles that Will Shortz doesn't take them much these days, with the rationale that they usually force too many fill compromises. I love how smoothly Ella worked NEWSIES into that opening corner — RAW SILK is apt!
ARRET isn't great, but that didn't stop me.
What made this puzzle stand out was its amazing cluing. Having to tailor an early-week puzzle to newer solvers can choke off creativity and fun, but Ella managed to make the puzzle sing in multiple clue categories:
Not the perfect imagery for MUSICAL CHAIRS, but when you add up all the ways Ella excelled, that's some first chair-level work.
★ You know what they say: the family that crosses words together never says cross words to get her!
Well, they should.
I loved seeing the three pics here: son, mother, and father, each contributing to the creation. I'll remember this one for that aspect alone.
Some great finds, too, especially those involving a space change. NO REG(R)ETS split into BERGERON and BERETS is excellent. And what a winner in DE(P)OSITION forking into PLUMPED / PLUM POSITION!
I didn't notice the Notepad until well after finishing, but I'm glad I did. I assumed that the circled letters had to be random because getting them to spell something out while adhering to the theme constraint and crossword symmetry would be near impossible. The key word is "near!" Spelling out SEPARATE separated this one from the pack.
All that, plus mid-length fill! Seven-letter slots often work best with boring entries like CHAPTER, so BIG NEWS, BODY ART, DETOXES, KASHMIR, MASCARA, PROGENY, TRILOGY add so much spice.
Entertaining discoveries all tied together with a solid meta-answer, put together by a family all contributing their parts? I could hardly ask for more.
★ Aw, rats! A friend and I were just brainstorming crosswords based on famous routes. One of the most famous, ROUTE SIXTY-SIX, came up right away, but we couldn't figure out an execution that both made sense and felt interesting to solve. Today's did just that.
A basic necessity of the concept is to incorporate the states that the route goes through, from CA to IL, and Dan executed that aspect smoothly. Not a difficult task considering how much space there is to work with in a 21x21, but I appreciated the touches like how he incorporated TX into SILENT X. There aren't many ways to do this — CHEST X-RAY was one of the interesting few I found — and SILENT X is a winner, especially with a great clue referencing a "roux ingredient."
ROUTE SIXTY SIX is also a must to include. The fact that it can be balanced out with Steinbeck's nickname for it, THE MOTHER ROAD is so fortuitous!
What made the puzzle sing for me was how it mirrored the scenic drive, featuring sights along the path such as the PAINTED DESERT, GATEWAY ARCH, and CADILLAC RANCH. All three are such colorful entries — the first/last literally so!
I've played the jazz classic Route 66 dozens of times, but I've never been motivated to take the famous drive until now. After finishing the puzzle, I spent some time investigating what else there is to experience along the way. I don't generally enjoy road trips, but this is one I'm now motivated to try.
★ It's a rare constructor who can carve out a theme that seems both familiar and fresh. We've had plenty of rhyming themes, repeated words, phrases made of two words only differing by one letter, phrases made of two words differing by two letters, etc., but I couldn't find this exact implementation anywhere. NEVER EVER, THIGH HIGH, HOVER OVER are perfect examples of two-word phrases where the second word is the first word without the starting letter.
And BEARS EARS! Erik has a gift for digging out phrases I would never have thought of. Not only does the BEARS EARS monument look like bear's ears, but the fact that BEARS and EARS don't rhyme makes this so memorable. I also enjoyed the easy exposure to the Navajo name in the clue.
Tight theme, with few other possibilities. All I could turn up was HANDY ANDY, which feels outdated, and one of my favorite ice cream flavors, CHUBBY HUBBY. Shorter ones like SCAT CAT and PALE ALE work, but they're not as interesting.
Nothing HALF ASSed about this grid. Love me some EGG TARTs in dim sum; can't believe I hadn't already added to our XWord Info Word List.
Will Shortz usually frowns at initialisms that aren't known by virtually everyone in the USA (like USA), because if you don't already know the initialism, there's no way to infer it. Electronic benefit transfer is a common term in economics and finance, anyway, and tens of millions of people use EBT at grocery stores.
FORTNITE, self-descriptive LANDBACK, nerdy LIVE LONG and prosper — there's an ENVIABLE amount of great bonus material to enjoy. Along with a simple yet elegant theme, it's such a welcome early-week experience.
★ Appropriate that GENERAL TSO kicks off today's theme because this is a five-star puzzle. Delicious theme, aromatic bonuses, and plated so elegantly, with not even the tiniest smear in sight.
I've thought about GENERAL TSO many a time, since I have a guilty love of Americanized Chinese food. CAP'N CRUNCH and I have fought many a battle, his devious charm and sweetness leading to wild sugar rushes for my kids. Fried chicken is my kryptonite, so the COLONEL and I are well acquainted.
I'm astounded that I've never made the FOOD FIGHT connection. That's thematic gold.
Awesome corners. Only two multi-worders in SIN CITY and GET THIS, but they're both sizzlers. And such color in LAGGARD, OCEANIA, ANNUITY (said the MBA dork); these one-worders sing.
The centered revealer isn't for everyone, as it gives away the game too quickly. A mirror symmetry layout could have avoided this, with the themers running vertically and FOOD FIGHT centered in row 12. That would also have allowed COLONEL / SANDERS to be placed closer together, perhaps at the tops of columns 6 and 8.
Mirror sym isn't for everyone, though — Mike Shenk at the WSJ doesn't like it unless it's absolutely necessary, for example.
It's a rare treat to feast on such a tasty puzzle with so much nutritional value. The fact that it's a debut — and on a Monday, one of the most difficult days to construct for — makes it that much spicier.
★ Such a cool grid pattern! At first, it looked asymmetrical because those L-blocks looked like they were going every which way, but once I tilted my head 45 degrees counterclockwise, all was right in my crossworld again. I enjoy diagonal symmetry, and the L-blocks look like little arms and legs of a person jumping up and down for joy. Super cool.
A lot of debut entries, too. None boast of cutting-edge freshness, but oh, the clever, accessible clues! MATH TESTS indeed have their own problems — and solutions! HEAD FAKES in basketball get defenders moving the wrong way all the time.
Even shorties like ERASE were elevated with amazing wordplay. [Off the mark?] isn't an adjective, but a verb + noun. Brilliant stuff.
Saving the best for last, an ordinary NAIL FILE becomes so much more with the bland-seeming [Digital tool]. In today's day and age, I go straight to the digital/analog meaning every time, and I give up the slow clap when I finally realize it's the "fingers as digits" meaning yet again.
I did have to put down the puzzle and return to the upper right, such a tough corner. Everything is fair, but I couldn't make myself buy TGIF as a [Freedom cry, for some], since freedom cries are nothing to pun about. Everything finally fell when this art idiot realized that maybe he could guess at Bosch's "The Last Judgment." When in doubt, guess something with common letters, alternating consonant-vowel. Appropriate that the puzzle fell because of the fall of EDEN.
All this goodness in a squeaky-clean grid? Matthew's jumping-for-joy grid art describes my solving experience so well.
★ Brilliant. Lowercase m looking like r + n smashed together? That's a strong concept in itself. Combining this with the perfect revealer — FROM STEM TO STERN — makes it a constructor's gem. Praise the benevolent Crucivera, goddess of crosswords, for her magnificent gift!
Excellent theme phrases, too. It'd be all too easy to use dictionary definitions that are unsatisfying to uncover, like if [Burns] had been the clue for OVERCOOKS IN THE OVEN. I'd be happy to get SPINNING WHEEL or BRASS SECTION in a themeless, and WHAT A GOOD BOY AM I is straight out of a nursery rhyme.
SCOTTISH POET did feel like an ODD SOCK compared to the others. Is GERMAN COMPOSER crossworthy? How about SOUTHEASTERN BOXER? I'd have preferred a sizzling (pun intended) phrase like GOES UP IN SMOKE for [Bums?].
Not easy to deal with 12-letter themers in the middle, surrounding a 13-letter middle entry. We try to avoid "cheater squares" whenever possible, but adding black squares at the U of USTA and S of ORES can enhance visual appeal. Yes, it's subjective, but pyramid blocks can be so eye-catching.
People ask me all the time what editors are looking for. It's a tough question to answer since most editors say they know it when they see it. If I had to put some words to it, I'd use fresh, interesting, surprising, indescribable ideas. This one hits all of those criteria and more.
★ Innovative twist for a Thursday!
If you didn't get that, we've highlighted the four KEY words below. Rotate those four KEYs 90 degrees to make sense of each Down entry.
Amazing that Lucy and Ross found enough different ways to incorporate KEY, too. The old kids' joke asks, what three keys open no locks? Answer: donkey, monkey, turkey. If I only had a shot of WHISKEY for every time I heard that!
Solid finds in OKEY DOKE, HOCKEY, and JOCKEY to flesh it out. Others I could think: JOKEY Smurf, MIKEY Day, RICHARD LEAKEY, RICKEY Henderson, and a toadying LACKEY. Crikey!
MONKEY PAW instead of MONKEYS PAW made me hitch. That is, until I saw the creepy picture Peele's production company uses. W.W. Jacobs's story seems like a nursery rhyme compared to this!
I found it confusing that UNIONISTS and EMMA STONE stole the headlines, along with ROBOT KITS and CHEYENNES. I usually dig long bonuses, but these muddied the waters. An alternate layout where the KEY themers are the longest entries would be difficult, but not impossible, especially if you went up to the max of 78 words. Minor point, though.
I've had many editors give me the stink-eye for KOD, TKOD, even KOS, saying that they look so weird. I avoid them now because the editors are the gateKEYpers, but they still seem fine to me.
Innovative, POW!-worthy idea, with a great (WARNING, PUN ALERT!) spin.
★ Five factors make this not just an easy POW! pick, but a paragon of Monday perfection.
Interesting theme. I had to go back nearly a decade to think of a Monday puzzle that had a similar feel. Not only are the theme phrases colorful, but they point perfectly to their "symbolic" clues. Q.U.E.U.E.S. as a DOTTED LINE makes me smile.
Consistency. Each themer is in the form of (adjective)(noun). Each clue contains six letters. Elegant! Consistency by itself cannot make a boring theme interesting, but it can make a great theme that much better.
Amazing bonus fill. Six long Downs spread out in alternating fashion, up down up down up down. Six long Downs, not an iffy one among them. No CUSS WORDs from me, just a giddyup, ALL ABOARD!
Short fill so smooth that it's unnoticeable. A mark of true grit. Most constructors would settle on six long Downs that worked(ish), and then they'd look the other way to get a final corner glooped together. Not a single dab of crossword glue for Leslie, showing iteration striving for perfection.
Fresh cluing. GELS has been in the NYT crossword 50 times. This is the first time it's been clued using "nail polish." Tying together two consecutive entries in BROOD and HEN was a nice touch, too.
Top-notch puzzle to hook newbs, as well as to remind ennui-ridden veterans that even early-weekers can spark joy.
★ The NYT has published hundreds of rebuses now, so you have to raise the bar to get an acceptance. That's precisely what Jess does today! Well, not exactly. It's more than a literal RAISED THE BAR, and it's one step above a BAR rebus. In fact, it's exactly one step up!
An example, to clarify: RAIN (BAR)RELS / (BAR)ISTA both contain the BAR rebus. But wait, there's more! Under RAIN (BAR)RELS lurks SUSHI. SUSHI is not a [Place to order sake and sashimi], but a SUSHI (BAR) is — the BAR is "raised" at the end of that entry.
I could use some sake now, for heaven's sake.
Even the RAISE THE (BAR) revealer gets into the game, crossing CA(BAR)ET, with DIVE (BAR) hiding underneath. Neat to get these triple-theme answer sets.
And I'd totally go to a place that's a cross between a CABARET and a DIVE BAR.
Pairs of crossing themers make filling a bear. Tucking a third themer in amps up the difficulty by much more than 50%, even if that third themer is short. Good thing that Jess had a ton of flexibility; able to test out many possibilities under DISEM(BAR)KED: TASK, MINI, DIVE, or even CASH, CLAM, CLIF, CROW, etc.
I would have loved for all the bars to make no sense with their clues, like SUSHI. A [Shabby establishment] is a DIVE, so I didn't notice anything odd. CROW clued as [Device for applying leverage] would have been a much more interesting needle-scratcher, for example.
Overall, I appreciate Jess's efforts to add a unique extra layer, greatly enjoying the delayed secondary a-ha of figuring out SUSHI + BAR. And I'll raise a glass to those hidden MINI and DIVE BARs, because I love having my spirits lifted.
So much for raising the bar.
★ I wish I could do even half what Ryan can. This TECH NERD feels like he LIVES A LIE when admiring a construction that frankly is beyond his talent. Ryan is one of the rare constructors who inspires me to further develop my ARTILLERY of tools so that one day, I might be able to create an ultra-low-word-count masterpiece like this. The gigantic swath of white in the middle ... jaw-dropping, with its amazingly colorful and clean fill. It feels like it breaks several laws of physics.
Some youngsters might balk at the old-timey LON CHANEY, but there are a lot of solvers out there who might even remember when his movies were in theaters. And when you combine it with [Count ___] — misdirecting away from CHOCULA — that's bloody awesome.
★ What a neat variety of "literal wordplay" tricks! I love that not one of them exactly repeats:
I had to work hard to dig up all eight hidden gems, and although there were frustrations along the way, I stretched my brain to its max, having to think in all sorts of different styles, and eventually crossed the finish line.
All that, with only a single short fill ding in PSA? Considering that the Sunday average is about ten gluey bits, that's amazing.
Heck yeah, I SEE WHAT (you) DID THERE — dozens of painstaking iterations to finally arrive at this high-quality product. Can't wait to see what LIEs AHEAD for this pair.
★ Another beaut from Nam Jin! I've seen thousands of grid patterns over the years, so it takes something special for me to notice. This grid, symmetrical across a diagonal line from NW to SE, with a wide-open layout, certainly qualifies. If you tilt your head, it almost looks like the CONE OF SILENCE.
FORGET ABOUT IT isn't as memorable as FUHGEDDABOUDIT, but it sure is easier to spell. And given that what I seek above all else in crosswords is ten minutes of forget-my-worries bliss, FRIENDLY BANTER is such a CRÈME DE LA CRÈME entry.
Clever repurposing of "needle exchange," too, as in two friends good-naturedly needling each other.
I didn't get a few clues:
So much delightfulness in black square aesthetics, marquee entries, and clever cluing, all in a nearly squeaky-clean grid. Couldn't ask for much more than that.
★ I haven't (happily) required this much gestation time to figure out a theme in ages. I hit SIGN FOR DELIVERY halfway through and figured the concept must refer to different kinds of deliveries. GUT FEELING might refer to ... how a method actor delivers lines? THE KICKER had to get at some football term … when the long snapper delivers the ball?
I can hear everyone out there shaking their heads at me. Don't worry, I'm smh at myself. Even with a couple of recent childbirth puzzles, including a fun one from a few months ago, I still got fooled.
After finally figuring things out, I wasn't sure if the phrases were too strained. WATER BREAK is so different from MY WATER BROKE, and even SIGN FOR DELIVERY is a weird way to describe signs of impending childbirth. Being forced to think a little (okay, a lot) about the connections is exactly what made the theme fun and even memorable.
The entertainment didn't end there! To get so much URBAN CAVER (I still haven't been on Seattle's underground tour, but it sounds amazing), MANSPLAINS, ROID RAGE, MIND'S EYE — amazing use of long Down slots! Smart layout, and such care taken to achieve smooth and snazzy results.
Even the mid-lengthers were fun — TAMARI made me smile, as my wife is testing out gluten sensitivity, so I've been experimenting with both TAMARI and liquid aminos. Definitely worth a bit of INU BSS (sorry, dog lovers!)
All this, in a debut? I can't wait to see what Rose will deliver next!
Such an elegant theme: four sporting venues that can all be used both as nouns and verbs. Not only that, but each of the verbs can start a legitimate phrase? That certainly would RING my constructor ALARM BELLS — if I were clever enough to think of it.
As if that wasn't enough, Claire wove so much fun into the clues. Those Europeans, eating their "Cool American" DORITOS. I bet they don't even have pumpkin-spiced everything yet in AUTUMN.
And I shall thusly explain the MEN clue to you …
Or maybe not.
Not a jump-out-of-your-seat sort of theme discovery, but one to sit back and admire. Beautiful early-week concept.
★ Sometimes, a single sizzling entry in a themeless is all it takes to rev me up.
When I first started cracking into Fridays, SAY THE MAGIC WORD made me so happy that any crossword glue couldn't slime my smile. Today, YE OF LITTLE FAITH accomplished the same thing.
But IS NOTHING SACRED, that phrase doubling the impact? Whoa!
Along with the LOCH NESS MONSTER and the fun trivia about the "surgeon's photograph," Trenton could have poured gallons of AGS-ENT-ESE-ESS over me, and I still wouldn't have been on the LAMS.
(Only the most annoyingly compulsive crossword people will remember how many times AGREE TO DISAGREE has been part of a triple-stack. Let's agree to agree that I am one of the aforementioned. What, did you really think I wouldn't mention that? Oh ye of little faith.)
★ I SLUMPED from being STUMPED but quickly went from WTF? to FTW! How could [Key lime] possibly be MOMENT OF TRUTH? Doubly fun to realize in that moment of truth that the clue writer hadn't followed the reminder the CROSS YOUR TS — as in [Key time], not [Key lime]. Such a perfect obfuscation, "key lime" sounding perfectly legit!
All of Adam's tomfoolery was so innocent, not a single theme clue making my Thursday-trickery-radar ping. My favorite was [One for whom libel is a major issue]. I plunked in PUBLISHER and happily admitted getting gotten, when the DALAI LAMA appeared on behalf of not libel, but Tibet. The double-t-crossing double-cross = genius!
I'm not often a fan of "Thursday trick in the clues," because the wordings can sound weirdly unnatural, or they get lost in the shuffle. There's a reason why most editors focus on long grid entries for 99% of puzzles.
Today's falls into that rare category of trickery-in-clues puzzles that works brilliantly. I rarely want to spend time reviewing anything after finishing a crossword, but I spent half an hour marveling at all the natural-sounding flim-flammery — as well as the fact that Adam didn't have any stray Ls in the non-theme clues!
In case you missed any of the genius, we've highlighted the themers below. Note that although symmetry wasn't 100% necessary, Adam did a great job of putting all his long themers in opposing spots. Dotting so many short themers around the rest of the grid made my Is open wide, too.
★ When I solve on paper, I put a C by any outstanding clue. Andrew and Caitlin are star C students today, with over a dozen of them! Highlighting the multitude of genres:
Interesting trivia. As many times I've heard ALOHA over the years, l've never known that it means "presence of breath." Entertaining fun fact.
Question mark wordplay. [Winners' circles?] — clearly, some wordplay is involved. Maybe it had to do with a circle as a gathering? Or victory laps? Brilliant wordplay, hinting at the circularity of GOLD MEDALS.
Innocent misdirection. A cheater might throw a game or match. A sporting final? Nope, literally, they might throw LOADED DICE!
Capitalization play. Whether or not you agree with NANCY PELOSI's politics, it's hard not to agree that she makes "House calls."
Pun fun. "Catchy communication" is an APB? Yes, if you're talking about catching a criminal. Groooan!
And that was all within the first 20 clues! Unbelivable density of delights.
I did have some hiccups, having to make educated guesses to suss out ALCALDE, FOLEY and DRE. Nor did I know of any racetrack and casino synergies. Unambiguous crosses for all of those entries, though.
Soooo much exhilarating cluing. Even with a boring grid, I would have still given this my POW! The fact that Andrew and Caitlin's construction was up to their usual sky-high standards made it that much easier to auto-POW! this one.
I love it when I get to rave about a crossword.
★ MENTAL GYMNASTICS has such a wow factor, anchoring this puzzle solidly in POW! territory all by itself. The fact that it's also 16 letters, instead of the usual grid-spanning length of 15, also helps to distinguish it, because it opens up a ton of innovative possibilities in grid design. Daniel created a pattern of black squares that's not only eye-catching, but novel — nerds like me can use our "topologically similar grids" data (in our "Analzye this puzzle" feature), and it wasn't a surprise that today, there were no others like this one.
I flew through this Saturday much faster than Jim Horne, probably because I'm so much cooler than him. Gentle giant on "GoT"? HODOR! Danish attraction … LEGO HOUSE! "Dune" reference? TIMOTHEE Chalamet!
Jim's not impressed.
Thankfully, there was also more to love in less nerdly topics. FREEGAN might be a foreign term, but it's so fun. More importantly, it's gettable as a play on "vegan."
As if all of this didn't delight me enough, there were two standout clues:
Some minor dings, like PLOT TWIST feeling oddly clued as a [Familiar soap opera device], but so, so, so much to love. Encore, maestro! (Daniel is a professional opera singer.)
★ Longtime readers know my love of Matt Gaffney's metapuzzle series. It's not uncommon for theme answers' clues to include numbers that hint at something. These numbers could lead to the letter number within the theme answer — KEVIN KLINE [7,9] would return the 7th and 9th letters, or L and N — or something completely different. These cryptic hints can be maddeningly difficult to crack, but once you get them, it's magic.
I went into this one with the meta-detective mindset, considering all sorts of strategies on how to use the clue numbers. Clearly, they had to lead to some meta-answer, somehow. Yet when I got to WAR HERO [4,0], I was baffled. How could an enumeration of zero possibly work? Was there a zeroth square hidden to the left of square one?
And when I typed in the last square, I was … done? Adam, this is supposed to be a mid-week puzzle, not one of Matt's deadly week 5 brain-melters!
Oh. I glossed over a long clue, for RHYMING.
GREAT FUN is so apt, those numbers rhyming with their two-word entries. WAR HERO rhymes with FOUR ZERO, that's so novel and entertaining!
It's extremely rare that I run across a puzzle where I can't immediately recall some predecessor or even ancestor on the crosswording evolutionary chain. Along with some delights in GASTROPUB and MCDOUBLES more than making up for gloopy IS TOO VILLE (neighboring town to Whoville), I haven't decided on my POW! so quickly in ages. Bravo, Adam!
(Answer to Adam's bonus: [8, 2, 4] = GREAT SIOUX WAR)
★ Mind-bending concept, three animals replaced by their collective noun. Three CROWs equal a MURDER, three LIONs a PRIDE, and three ANTs a COLONY. I love the innovation within the old-hat rebus genre, making for a memorable debut.
Memorable gridwork, too. Consider how many themers Andrew had to work with. It's not simply four Acrosses, but nine crossing Downs — triplets crammed together! There are so few possibilities containing LION, it's miraculous that any arrangement of SCALLION, PAVILION, A MILLION BUCKS worked.
I especially appreciated the gridwork in the BOLO TIE region, where so many themers interacted. With PRIDE MONTH lacing through CROWD NOISE and MICROWATT, I'd expect globs of crossword epoxy holding it all together. Such smooth results — with so few black squares in that area, allowing for not just BOLO TIE but also BRUNEI. Brilliant!
My frustratingly obsessive brain held me back from giving this an auto-POW!, as it raised a yellow flag, immediately recalling Paolo's Fireball. There are so many similarities. First reaction: ugh.
However, this is almost surely a product of constraints. So many of the themers have so few options, that if you asked 100 experienced constructors to work up this concept, I bet that out of the 10 who didn't stab their eyes out, 8 or 9 would arrive at something approaching this northwest corner.
Should Paolo's prior art take away from Andrew's debut? Paolo's isn't easy to find, the themers not even showing up on Matt Ginsberg's extensive database, and it ran in a different publication with a different target audience. Given the fact that constructors come up with identical ideas independently all the time — just like scientists — I shook off my hesitations.
This is the type of envelope-pushing I love to see in Thursday puzzles. It's a shame that Andrew got there much later than Paolo, but hopefully NYT tricksy Thursdays will continue to push boundaries in even more creative ways.
★ It's a pleasure to encounter a set of connections I'd never thought of before — especially when it involves items that are in my fridge. I have a full bottle of RANCH DRESSING and a container of COTTAGE CHEESE that have been sitting for a month because my kids thought they sounded delicious ... and then they spurned both after tasting a fraction of a molecule. Stupid marketers; so annoyingly successful.
I wasn't impressed by the first themer, since there's a picture of a log cabin on the bottle — so much for subtlety. Then, I realized that it wasn't just LOG CABIN SYRUP that was named to give it a rustic feel. The words RANCH and COTTAGE are also employed to get at their foods' humble beginnings.
And HOMEMADE MEALS is a great way to tie the three foods together, plus make it all work with crossword symmetry. Love it.
I wasn't as wild about the gridwork. Four 13s is no joke, as each one forces two black square placements. Almost any four-themer grid can be executed with some long Down bonuses and a completely clean grid, though.
I appreciate the effort to work in great bonuses like MIND MELD, HABANERA, STILETTO, but even a single crossing like ORU (Oral Roberts University) / HABANERA can leave newer solvers in a TAILSPIN.
Okay, that is a ton of bonuses. I prefer a cleaner product to serve the NYT's broad range of less-experienced solvers, but I can understand the opposing philosophical viewpoint.
Most importantly, an excellent theme is an excellent theme. I spent an hour trying to come up with a single other possible entry but failed miserably. (KOZY SHACK PUDDING was the closest I got.) That element of tightness made this theme stand out.
★ I loved Andy Weir's latest book, Project Hail Mary. It's so inspiring to imagine humankind achieving the impossible.
Also inspiring: today's fantastic theme phrases! I would never have guessed that OPPORTUNITY, CURIOSITY, and INGENUITY could be incorporated into sizzling phrases (SPIRIT is easier). MORBID CURIOSITY is incredible.
I wasn't as wild about the revealer, as MARTIAN MISSIONS felt clunky; not nearly as strong as MARS MISSIONS or MARS LANDERS.
More importantly, the revealer gave away the game much too quickly. I love the moonshot at grid art (although I squinted so hard my glasses broke), and using left-right symmetry can easily allow for the revealer to go at the end of the puzzle, where it's supposed to. Singular MARS MISSION or plural MARS LANDERS in row 12 would have been perfect.
Dreaming big is admirable. It gets people thinking beyond their limits. Trying to build around five grid-spanners with only 72 words, though … there must be a balance between dreams and reality. The bottom corners show the most strain, not a surprise given how many Down answers had to weave through two themers.
As with space missions, continuous improvement is critical, and another 10 or 20 revisions could have turned this into a tremendous lift-off puzzle for two new constructors.
Even with the rickety elements, though, the quality of the theme phrases + the inspirational nature of the concept + Lawrence's space exploration background added up to win me over. Can't wait to see what Noki, Lawrence, and Andy Weir put out next.
★ I haven't been so happily stumped by "Name That Theme" in ages. RAILROAD STATION … MARKET CRASH … CINNAMON BUN? Could it be a "words that can follow X" theme ... nope. Their first words aren't synonyms, nor are their last. Perhaps there are words hidden in the middle of the themers? Nuh-uh.
I give. Tell me the revealer!
STOP DROP AND ROLL?
How does that …
Ah! RAILROAD STATION is a STOP, MARKET CRASH is a DROP, and CINNAMON BUN is a ROLL. Elation as the lightbulb finally flicked on!
I love that each of the three theme phrases is strong and in the language, plus they're all nouns. Verbs might have worked for any, like COME TO AN END, TAKE THE PLUNGE, or SHOOT CRAPS, so it's elegant to connect the themers further through consistency.
Solid gridwork, especially for a debut. With four themers, there's always room for at least two long bonuses, and BRIE LARSON and ANOTHER ONE hit that mark.
Most importantly for a Monday puzzle, Tomas took such care to avoid sticky globs of glue. Bryn MAWR might look unfamiliar to some. AERO is easy enough to figure out from etymology. Given such excellence in gridding, I'd suggest that Tomas try adding another set of long Downs in the SW and NE next time.
This finance guy never likes hearing about a MARKET CRASH, but he loves it when a theme crashes joyously over him. No CRABs today.