A book recommendation this week in the form of letters omitted, although even the mighty Amazon search engine would have struggled to do much with:

EL INNOW PE

Which is as good an indicator as any to the regular reader that I struggled too. Granted I started late, this being the weekend when traditionally we bake the Christmas cake, but despite having a full grid by 10PM Sunday, I was lacking the full book title, had letters in the left and right columns, but not even a guess at the highlighting or what to do about the “encoding”.

Any bafflement regarding the two columns we’d been busily moving letters removed into can partly be explained by an unlucky K for KORAN rather than the required Q, but still, my inability to decipher the following doesn’t bode well for a successful reading of ELLA MINNOW PEA, the volume in question, as apparently the letters used (allowed) diminish in number as the book proceeds. According to Wikipedia, that is.

THE QUICK BROWN FX JMPS V LAZY DG

Though we haven’t strictly speaking avoided the use of certain letters, which does make me doubt myself. It was only the other day too that I remarked on my lack of grid awareness, and here’s yet another example, the letters being a pretty random bunch as far as I could tell.

Never doubt my Googling skills though, which led to the Wikipedia page in question, the fact that the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” plays an important part in the book, only to be substituted at the close by “Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs”, the latter a rearrangement in the form I have it of the original letters in the left and right columns.

It’s just left then to highlight the author, and LMNOP (Ella Minnow Pea, you see), the only remaining letters allowed by the end of the book.

All of which leaves me itching to have a look at the volume in question, though I’d love a sneak peak first as I suspect I may not be up to the challenge, and Amazon for once doesn’t have a Look Inside.

Oh well, the puzzle was finished, and enjoyed, albeit with a suspicion until the very last that I was about to run out of time. Perhaps I should start getting up earlier Saturday morning.

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Our theme today is to do with various sorts of trains, which are dotted about the grid. Not that I noticed, it must be said, more sure of the pangram which was there, and feeling anyway pretty battered and bruised by the close. Because yes, this was as tough (I hope) as they get, and dare I say much too tough for a weekday. Enjoyable in a masochistic sort of way, but by the close I was just relieved to have finished. Top quality clues from Scorpion as you’d expect, with a couple of obscurities in the grid, but all were among the easier clues to parse, so no complaints here, and I will admit to feeling smug on getting the unknown (to me) footballer.

COD? I’ll go with 19d – “Rosy wants first in biology – a strain at such a university? (8)”.

All the answers and parsing of the clues can be found in Fifteensquared’s blog from October 2017:

http://www.fifteensquared.net/2017/10/10/independent-9670-by-scorpion/

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟

Is it fair to use references in a crossword that only those with a little insider knowledge will know? I suppose all sorts of human activities have their in-jokes and sly personal references, and why would one expect Crosswordland to be any different? The clue for ALIGNED requires new and inexperienced solvers to have some knowledge of the names of i crossword setters. When combined with the crossword’s only (I think) obscurity, “ned” referring to a Scots hooligan, this clue, I think becomes unfair. In defence, the crossing letters and clear definition can have left few in doubt of the entry.

Otherwise, this was an accessible and pleasing solve, if over rather too quickly for my taste. My first in was 1ac, and then they all went in fairly readily, more or less anticlockwise, until my last in, 9d. Apart from the aforementioned ALIGNED, I don’t think there are any obscurities, and only one bit of parsing had me puzzled: the clue for NURSE. I eventually took it as a straightforward definition (“tend”) plus a whimsical, but not not particularly cryptic, definition (“to hold on to a pint but not neck it”).

This puzzle was one I could have solved with my late maiden aunts without either of them blushing, which is a surprise, given this setter’s reputation under this pseudonym. I think there were only a couple of references to a certain sub-culture – and a couple of opportunities not taken. Even so, the setter’s creativity was on display in such clues as TRAVELLER, PASSING ON and ON THE SLY. I was amused by the surface reading of SIDEROADS, and the misdirection which both drew on and shamed my prejudice in GENERAL. Clue of the Day, though, goes to the clever 20d: “Let down recently (after making love, Ed turned over) (7)”.

This setter seems to read the comments in Fifteensquared and to reflect upon them, which is good. He seems to take a genuine interest in what solvers think. Here’s the link, with all the answers and explanations: http://www.fifteensquared.net/2017/10/15/independent-on-sunday-1442-by-hoskins/

Difficulty rating (out of five):  πŸŒŸπŸŒŸ

A thoroughly pleasant solving experience today courtesy of Phi.

My scattergun approach to picking which clue to attempt next failed to get me a foothold in the top half, so I switched to the SE corner and worked my up for a change. After that the SW corner fairly flew in and In the end it might well have been my quickest ever Phi solve – if I ever bothered to notice such things that is. I wonder if some of the differences between us solvers might be sometimes be down to a matter of luck as to which clues we chance upon to do first?

The last two in were SKIRMISHED (it seems you can verb almost any noun these days) and HARRIED where we had ‘hied’ as part of the word play – as in ‘Hie thee hither’ I suppose, which I shall be doing in a bit – Mrs Cornick & I are off to spend a weekend in Stratford doing Shakespearean things.

Lots of good clues, no complaints (well, maybe ‘generated by’ in 10a would have been annoying had the clue not been an easy one), and my pick of the bunch goes to this one:

21d Razor specialist set up company: arrived for a trim (5)

I shan’t mention the theme by name, but if you’re curious then Phi drops in to explain in comment number 5 of the original blog from Bertandjoyce which you can access by clicking this link:

Fifteensquared/Independent-9643-Phi

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟🌟🌟

It took me ages to tune into Klingsor’s wavelength this morning. At the start it looked like this was heading for a five-star difficulty rating, but once I was in the zone it got much more tractable, and seemed closer to a three-star puzzle. I’ve therefore averaged-out at four stars. It took me only a little over my typical time in the end.

In the comments on Fifteensquared there is some comment about how Ximinean this is (or not), Ximinean meaning it is very precisely clued, following clear conventions – as distinct from the boundary-pushing and allusive or whimsical cluing that we get from certain other setters. I’m not sure how useful that is, but it is certainly the case that by the end I had no parsing difficulties left unresolved, which is good enough for me. Neither is there any obscure vocabulary, and no visits to Chambers were needed, even for checking purposes.

There are lots of ticks and smile-emojis in my margin. I thought SWEET-TOOTHED was good, with a nice surface reading, and the clue for AYRSHIRE was entertaining. PATIENT was neat, too, but this blogger has no choice but to proffer 25ac as Clue of the Day: “Destroy e.g. boat, with spite, principally (8)”.

Independent 9636 / Klingsor

Difficulty rating (out of 5): 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

For a while now I seem to have been struggling badly with puzzles by Serpent, and today’s Saturday reprint is no exception. To be fair, perhaps my mind wasn’t in the right place for solving today, but still, I got there eventually, but only with a great deal of help, and still find myself mystified by some of the parsing, in particular 26ac which still makes no sense at all to me, and am less than convinced that “lifting” and “raising” in 24d and 19d justify the switch in order of the wordplay elements. A few of the definitions seem tenuous, in particular at 20ac, but perhaps I’m just being particularly dim today. Always a possibility. There’s a pangram in the perimeter, which I guessed would be present early on, but I had so few in place for an age that it did little to help. At the close I found myself feeling generally disgruntled, so not one for me, sorry! The general reception on the other side seems to have been very positive, however, so perhaps I just got out of bed the wrong way. Do let me know how you got on.

COD? I’ll go with 6d – “Enacts changes on railway line (8)”.

All the answers and parsing of the clues can be found in the 2017 blog from Fifteensquared:

https://www.fifteensquared.net/2017/07/29/independent-crossword-9608-by-serpent/

Difficulty rating (out of 5): 🌟

β€œOne of Dac’s typically smoothly-constructed crosswords” was John’s comment on fifteensquared – and who am I to disagree? This was all completed fairly quickly, although there a few head-scratching moments, for instance until I realised β€˜dork’ was the definition and not part of the wordplay in 16dn. The two long answers at 4dn and 5dn were easily got and provided handy pegs to hang others on, although there was little need for such pegs. It is rare to find anything to quibble about in a Dac puzzle but one might possibly note the absence of an indication that 12ac is a definition by example.

I marked up several clues as candidates for CoD, including 9ac, 1dn, 2dn and 21dn, but my final choice is 18dn: β€˜Successfully handling piece of masonry (6)’

The original review generated very few comments, which is probably a reflection of Dac’s excellence as a setter. You can find it at

www.fifteensquared.net/2017/08/30/independent-9635-by-dac/

Mid-November finds us enjoying the sort of weather we would have hoped for at the end of August – blue skies, temperatures that have led to the removal of hat, scarf, hoodie and coat for the duration of my daily ramble. Like a lot of people in these parts, it’s something that’s hung on from lockdown, and a good thing too you would have to argue, especially with the scenery we have to enjoy in these parts. The unseasonably warm weather does though make me wonder if Greta and co have a point, as we seem to be getting weeks like this interspersed with torrential rain and flooding. Perhaps I should go and glue myself to a motorway somewhere.

All of which is a long way from today’s offering by Hedge-sparrow. First thoughts this week would be – what a lot of clues, what a lot of preamble, and all in the sort of font that leaves me reaching for my reading glasses, for a grid that doesn’t look overly packed.

My advice to anybody as ever slightly daunted by the sort of preamble we occasionally get with the Inquisitor is to ignore most of it, because much you won’t need until the end game. Though this week that still left a bewildering variety of clue types. Perhaps Hedge-sparrow had decided the same too, as pointing out that 1ac in particular contained wordplay only was unusually generous.

Obviously, I didn’t get anywhere with 1ac at first, and indeed not until the centre of the grid, sort of working out from there, if with some slight trepidation given the six clashes, which always make me a little nervous, not being able to trust the checking letters and all that. Though early on was the very generous anagram in the bottom row, giving some equally generous A’s at the ends of the crossing answers.

I even spotted, pretty quickly, the one where we had to black out one square, TENETS being a bit of a gimme for “views” with a couple of letters, and the BRB to the rescue as ever to sort out the wordplay. This being, yet again, one of those puzzles that required lots of the latter, and as that’s one of the bits I enjoy most about this barred grid lark, you won’t hear any complaints from me.

Talking of LARKS, the first unclued was also a bit of a gimme. Minds being attuned this weekend to things 1ac (thanks also perhaps to a Guardian puzzle earlier in the week on the same theme, that is to say the centenary of the poppy appeal as revealed in the superfluous letters), In Flanders Field sprang instantly to mind, and with it loads of checking letters that would be useful for finishing off the grid fill, having spotted enough of the letters already entered to sketch out something approximating a poppy. Thus the blacked out square, see.

The symbols to be entered presumably being crosses, McCrae as the poets name now identified, and the speakers as THE DEAD, it then remained just to sort out the remaining clues, most of which were, of course, around those clashes that I, true to form, had struggled with.

Out with the crayons, and job done. Now, I thought that was all quite delightful, and not only because I enjoy a good bit of colouring at the end of a puzzle. A theme that could have been quite horribly handled done with sensitivity, and the whole falling together very nicely with enough different hints to aid the less astute solver. ie, me.

So, bravo to all involved, and do remind me to add this to my end of year best-of nominations.

20211114_144016~2

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟🌟🌟

A very welcome return for Morph in the Tuesday spot, with a theme that’s about things… Well, if you look closely enough at some of the across answers, you’ll see some that are obvious, and some that are less so. Needless to say I got the gist of what was going on, but failed to spot all the entries. Mostly this would be because I fairly raced through the puzzle, the long answers at the top and bottom of the grid being a bit of a gift, albeit with recourse to the dictionary and Google to check a few things, notably the tennis player. The consensus though back in the day seems to have been that this was on the more difficult side of things (and I know that Morph has a reputation for setting harder puzzles, though I’ve always fond myself to be on his wavelength), so I’ve gone with the four stars, though if you were prepared to lob the answers in on a bit of a wing and a prayer, you will have fared better. I did come a bit of a cropper at one point, chancing on the famous singer Al BROWN, forgetting the more famous Al GREEN until the NW corner refused to budge at the close. The rest though went in with little ado, and was thoroughly enjoyed.

Top notch quality as ever from Morph, with lots that was inventive, lots of smiles, and my COD nomination going to 14d – “Meat’s coming up – what happens if u snooze, sugar? (9)”.

Stuck for any of the answers or parsing of the clues? They can all be found in Fifteensquared’s blog from September 2017:

http://www.fifteensquared.net/2017/09/05/independent-9640-by-morph/

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟

A nice accessible puzzle to start the working week from Poins today. This crossword took me rather less than my typical time, and was completed without any need to resort to the dictionary or the internet (with one minor caveat). As such it was heading for a one-star difficulty rating. Except that I couldn’t parse EN MASSE at all, and I havered between “off” and “out” in 5 across, until a thitherto elusive FORWARD decided for me.

I consulted the internet only to see exactly where in west London Acton is. Obviously I trusted our setter to be accurate in describing it as part of Ealing – but there is something irresistible about maps, and I can get lost in them (as it were) very happily, so need only the slenderest of excuses to consult one.

From a selection of pleasing, if largely simple and straightforward clues, my choice for Clue of the Day goes to 36 with its good surface reading: “Italian writer covering for the most part one cause of food poisoning (1,3)”.

Here’s the link to Fifteensquared for all the answers and explanations: http://www.fifteensquared.net/2017/09/10/independent-on-sunday-1437poins/