Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟

All you needed was a glance at the grid to suspect that something out of the ordinary was happening today. It is what our regular contributor dtw42 has nick-named a “sticklebrick”, that is to say a grid in which both top and bottom rows and leftmost and rightmost columns have only uncrossing lights, thus causing the grid to resemble one of the children’s building blocks. And then there are the two strange L-shapes made by blocked lights in the middle.

Well, L is the Roman 50 and the message in the perimeter proudly proclaims that THIS IS CROSSWORD NUMBER FIFTY. I don’t know at what rate Kairos sets, but a quick glance at Fifteensquared suggests he is easily up to more than seventy crosswords now.

It’s an impressive haul – and this crossword is impressively constructed. Often the constraints of working to certain pre-filled lights can result in some obscure words being used to make it work. But not so today. I suppose YAWING and RETICULA are unusual, but they are a long way from arcane. SIRREE is perhaps odd, but the Americanism was signalled clearly enough. I had no need to resort to any dictionaries or lists to complete the puzzle, although to clarify the word-play I did make a trip to the internet to check that “kitchen” was indeed a name for the percussion in an orchestra. I have no interest in musicals, but I did know that “Annie” is one, and my guess was instantly confirmed by a rendition from Madame La Saboteuse.

I liked TOMATO with its Manx cat. HILTED was very neatly done, and the allusive definition for SPARE RIB was good. Clue of the Day for me, though, was the very nice 22ac: “Supports first three characters coming back with seafood (8)”.

Here’s the link for the answers and explanations: http://www.fifteensquared.net/2018/03/12/independent-9800-kairos/

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟

The first day of the first bank holiday weekend of the year brings us a very solver-friendly, accessible crossword to start us off. This one took me much less time than my typical, and was solved without needing to reach for the dictionaries. An enjoyable and pleasing solve.

There were six anagrams, two hidden inclusions (one an impressively long one) and a few simple charades, all making for a pleasing experience which will have encouraged new or improving solvers, which is good and important. That’s not to say that the puzzle was without interest – far from it. My last in was FAINTEST, and I struggled a bit with parsing it, and indeed was unsure of it at first (I’d worked my way alphabetically up to FA-NTEST). But it was a laugh-out-loud moment when I got it. In the opposite corner the word-play for ANGELICA occurred to me only after I looked at it written down.

I don’t think there is any word-play to quibble over, and nothing seems obscure to me. If you are looking for controversy, then I suppose the whole kitchen-versus-garden pea/bean/legume/nut thing is somewhere to start.

In addition to FAINTEST, I liked CHRONICLE a lot. My favourite, however was the neatly done 5ac, which surely brought a smile to anyone familiar with the tourist spots of the Belgian capital: “Minor finally clothed in fountain in Brussels? (6)”.

Here’s the link for the answers and explanations: https://www.fifteensquared.net/2018/03/07/independent-9796-eccles/

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟

A pleasing and enjoyable crossword from Poins starts us off for the new working week. This was largely very accessible, and I would have given it one star for difficulty, were it not for just a few chewier mouthfuls, which added a little variety to the dish.

My first in was the first one I read, CLEAR SIGHTED, and then everything fell into place more or less anticlockwise, with my last one in being CASSINO. Early on I did wonder if there would be some sort of theme, having got CLEAR SIGHTED and EYESORE, but despite the appearance of EVIL EYE towards the end of my solve, there didn’t seem to be one.

The ones that caused me to bump it up to two stars were BELOW THE BELT, UMBRAGE and EVIL EYE. All three had clear definitions as well as helpful crossing letters, so I doubt that many solvers would have got too stuck on them, but for each one the word-play was a little trickier than in the rest of the puzzle. “Hebe” is one of the less obvious classical goddesses and it took me a while to work that one out. The reversed “mu” in UMBRAGE ought to have had some sort of indicator that the “letter” we were looking for was Greek, and the word-play for “eye”in EVIL EYE did seem laboured to me. But perhaps I am just looking for something to highlight in an enjoyable solve.

The clue whose surface reading that made me smile is my nomination for Clue of the Day, 20d: “Draw close to elephant in the heart of uncharted territory (7)”.

Here’s the link for the answers and explanations: https://www.fifteensquared.net/2018/02/25/independent-on-sunday-1461-poins/

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Another superb challenge comes to us today courtesy of Serpent. I found this quite difficult but utterly engrossing, and at the completion of solving I had so many ticks and double-ticks in my margin, and absolutely no parsing knots to unravel – a sure sign, in my book, of an expertly constructed puzzle. There’s lots of misdirection, for example” a little lower” in 12ac. And the surface readings are impeccable throughout.

My eyebrow raised slightly over the juxtaposition of “blonde” (with an E) and “man” – but only for a fraction of a nanosecond. It didn’t trouble me much. If it troubled you, you may be interested in the discussion in the comments on Fifteensquared. There’s nothing wrong with these discussions, of course, pedantry being a common bedfellow to the precision so necessary in the parsing, and indeed the setting of good crosswords.

There’s a nina to be found in the top and bottom rows, ALDOUS HUXLEY being the author of 15ac. I was on the look-out for something, this being Serpent, and that certainly helped a little with one or two entries.

My short-list for Clue of the. Day was quite long, including HEIFER and BEAR WITH. My favourite, however, was the very neat 9ac “Redhead takes a step back at first touch (6)”.

Here’s the link to Fifteensquared for the answers and explanations: https://www.fifteensquared.net/2018/02/08/independent-9773-by-serpent/

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟

“Traditional, but not dull”. I don’t think I can do better than echo the opinion from the original blog of March 2018 when this crossword first appeared in the IoS.

In terms of time taken, this entertaining puzzle merited one star. I’ve bumped up the difficulty rating to two on account of a few entries which might have stretched the general knowledge a little: the Norwegian parliament, a pungent plant, a specialist powder and perhaps a version of rock-climbing that I for one hadn’t heard of. Otherwise, all pretty straightforward. That’s not a criticism, as writing clues to make a crossword accessible is as much of a skill as creating a challenging one – especially if the setter wishes to maintain plausible surface readings, which Peter has done so successfully.

This was a pleasure to solve. I often struggle with four-letter entries, especially when the initial letter does not cross with another entry. And when they themselves intersect (as they do in this grid) my dread rises even further. But today my foreboding was misplaced, as all four were clued in a very friendly way. Such is the consistency of the clues that I cannot say that any one in particular is outstanding, but 13d did raise a smile: ” Cheese and new pear put in cold storage (10)”.

Here’s the link: https://www.fifteensquared.net/2018/03/11/independent-on-sunday-1463-by-peter/

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Such is our setter’s reputation, and so divisive can it be, that I feel forced into defending Hoskins’s crosswords from potential attacks whenever I have been called upon to blog one of them. Today’s needs no such defence. With just a couple of fairly innocuous drugs references, only conventional references to alcohol and only one vaguely smutty reference, this crossword would not cause an eyebrow to be raised unless the solver were actively seeking offence. I was ever of the opinion that the adolescent back-of-the-school-bus character that we saw was only a persona constructed by an erudite and intelligent setter.

What genuinely marks out Hoskins is his creativity and ease with words, combined with his ability to offer seductive, and therefore misdirecting, surface readings. Accordingly, this engrossing puzzle took me quite a while compared to my typical time, but with so many penny-drop moments that it was very satisfying to solve. Only one clue seemed inferior – that for CARRIER BAGS.

I was tempted to nominate SNAPPY as my clue of the day, for its novel cluing of “nappy”, or indeed OMAHA for its simplicity. But the accolade has to go to 25ac, if only for its counter-intuitive quality: “What leads Hoskins astray is the cold ham starters (5)”.

Here’s the link for the answers and explanations: https://www.fifteensquared.net/2018/01/14/independent-on-sunday-1455-by-hoskins/

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟

An Independent on Sunday reprint is presented to us for the start of the new crossword-solving week. And it is just right for what we feel entitled to expect for a Monday: something not too demanding to ease us in. I completed this puzzle in a little under my typical time, and without the need for any help, and with only very trivial parsing questions. Two-star difficulty it is, then.

My two parsing problems were “slut” (reversed) from “drab” in TULSA. The crossing letters left me in no doubt, but I did do a quick check only because of writing this blog. The other was the “bull” part of BULLY OFF, which I sort of got, but which didn’t seem quite right. The two potential obscurities if indeed they are even that are IDEM and NAPOLEON (as a card game) but with both having helpful crossing letters, they can’t have caused too many problems.

My clue of the day is the concisely neat 23d, with its nice surface reading: “No show flat? (5)”.

Here’s the link to Fifteensquared for the answers and explanations: https://www.fifteensquared.net/2017/12/17/independent-on-sunday-1451-by-poins/

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Quite a tricky one this, I thought. Definitely at the more challenging end of the range. There are lots of question marks and circlings in my margin, indicative of initially unresolved parsings and things to be checked prior to blogging. But these are outnumbered by lots of ticks and double-ticks, which point to an enjoyable solve of an impressive crossword.

My parsing problems included “ed” being clued by “Courier’s head”. Obviously I fell for the misdirection and thought it had to indicate C. This one I couldn’t work out, and I had to go to Fifteensquared to get the penny to drop. Another one was the U in ICARUS. I had no doubt about the entry, but it was quite a while before I twigged how this worked, as I remembered the early United Nations General Secretary U Thant, from Burma. And there seems to be something not quite right about the “arable” part of the clue for ARAB LEAGUE.

There are a couple of obscurities. AXOLOTL which is itself not what those of us in theses isles think of when amphibians are mentioned (but which is one of those odd words, once seen never forgotten) and the clue involved a reversal of “lox” from “(smoked) salmon”. A new one to me. “Tref” from “forbidden” in TREFOIL is nowhere near as well known as its opposite “kosher” and that may have flummoxed some solvers.

I loved the oblique homophone in GUISE. The definition for RECTA was brilliant, and I did rather like JAILHOUSE. Clue of the Day, however, goes to 28ac. The clue is very neatly constructed to give a completely plausible surface reading: “Chicken perhaps like chickenfeed when grain kernels replaced with regular portions of tofu (7)”.

Here’s the link to Fifteensquared for the answers and explanations: https://www.fifteensquared.net/2018/02/22/independent-9785-morph/

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟🌟

A crossword of medium difficulty comes in the Monday slot this week. It would seem that the old certainties, which included an ‘easy’ on Mondays, are now long behind us. This pleasing and satisfying puzzle took me a little longer than my typical time, but was completed without aids, either dead-tree or electronic. I did, however, end up looking at Alabama on a map for rather longer than was strictly necessary – but that almost always happens whenever I consult an atlas.

There are no obscurities. SLÁINTE is surely sufficiently well-known these days to cause little trouble, especially when it was so clearly clued. It is one of those words I would have struggled to spell with confidence without something to go on, but doing so from an anagram was no problem. I was a little taken aback at first by SMALL BEER being indicated by a plural – but after just a moment’s thought I realised it was fine. “Cole” from “Porter” took a little thought, but only a little. But perhaps Our Younger Solver might not know that a shilling of old was a Bob.

My clue of the day is the neatly constructed and apposite 5d. We can hope. “Peace for now, ably, no end, negotiated with the help of this (7,2,5).

Here’s the link for the answers and explanations: https://www.fifteensquared.net/2018/02/19/independent-9782-raich/

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟🌟🌟

A glance at the grid had me alert for a potential nina even before I started my first read-through. As “belly” emerged on the right, I was sure that there would be something, and I wasn’t disappointed. However, it meant absolutely nothing to me when I saw it entire. I thought it was perhaps just a bit of fun Γ  la Hoskins, but it turns out it was a Flanders and Swan song, although not one my late maiden aunts ever played to me on the gramophone.

This impressive and enjoyable puzzle started to yield very readily, but after a while it became rather tricky especially, for me at least, in the bottom left quadrant. Some of the entries were easily guessable with a few crossing letters, but had word-play which demanded some real teasing out, for example, dropping the last letters of all three words of “the Jones boy” before the anagram could be done. Likewise PANPIPES and “syringes” took a little research to find out exactly how the clue worked. I do think that the use of “May” to clue “PM” (reversed) in ENCAMP is a little past its sell-by date now, though. There are a few oddities (I wouldn’t say obscurities) such as PLUMBAGO and HIGHTAIL, but both of these were very overtly clued and with helpful crossing letters.

I was tempted to nominate PISTOL as my Clue of the Day for its disguised definition, but my last one in gets it, for its laugh-out-loud penny-drop qualities when I finally got there: “Consume ducks, as they naturally do (4,4)”

Here’s the link to Fifteensquared for the answers and explanations, and you can find a link there to the song in the nina: https://www.fifteensquared.net/2017/12/09/independent-9722-by-monk-saturday-puzzle-9-december-2017/