Introducing a new Diary of a Crossword Fiend feature, the monthly Indie Spotlight to tell you about non-newspaper crosswords you might not have seen.
As an indie self-publisher, Minnesotan Andrew Ries offers two different lines of puzzles: Aries Xword is a weekly (each Saturday) crossword product, $12 a year, available in .puz, .jpz, and .pdf formats. Andrew’s Rows Garden series is $19.99 a year (puzzles every other Tuesday). Tell us a little about yourself, Andrew:
“I’ve been constructing for a little over ten years. I wrote a couple of crossword books for a regional publisher – a few are out of print now, but For the Birds Crosswords [Ed. note: My mom enjoyed that one!] was probably the biggest seller of the bunch. I was fortunate to get in on the booming digital crossword market as it was really launching in earnest right around 2009-2010, and now write the majority of my puzzles for a couple of puzzle app developers. My foray into Rows Gardens was where I really developed as a constructor. I wrote one of those a week for about three years. I transitioned that to a subscription service in 2014, also when Aries Xword was launched. I try to submit to mainstream markets every now and then, and have had a couple in most Fiend-reviewed venues. A few months ago I realized that my first six New York Times puzzles were each published on a different day of the week, with Tuesday being the last remaining donut, so I’ve made it life’s goal to have a Tuesday New York Times published next.”
I tackled three of his recent crosswords and the latest Rows Garden. That Rows Garden, #5, is of comparable quality to Joon Pahk’s Outside the Box Rows Garden puzzles (I test-solve those and they’re always quite good). If you like tough-but-doable variety puzzles, check these out. The pre-2014 Rows Gardens are available for free, and the 2014–2016 puzzles can be purchased; both groups are archived here. You can calibrate the challenge level by printing out one of four .pdf versions of each Rows Garden. I used the Easier version (eschewing Hardest, Harder, and Easiest) in which the Rows clues are given in grid order rather than alpha order. The puzzle took me about 15 minutes, so consider an Easier to hit at more than double the solving time of a Saturday NYT.
The first crossword I solved was “Themeless Challenge #7,” featuring a 33-square mini-theme with a staggered stack in the middle with RESOLUTIONS, NEW YEAR’S DAY, and TIMES SQUARE (!!), about the difficulty level of a Saturday NYT. Nice flow through the grid.
A medium themed crossword, “Turning a Phrase,” had a 14×17 grid and a Wednesday to Thursday NYT level. Neat theme, with UNDERSTATEMENT, JUST SAYING, SPIT TAKE, FIRING LINE, and LOADED QUESTION clued as if the first part modifies the second part if you read the second parts as synonyms for “remark.” For example, JUST SAYING is [“What’s fair is fair,” e.g.], a saying about what’s just rather than the colloquial phrase “(I’m) just saying.” Fresh theme angle.
A harder themed crossword, “Brilliant Cuts,” offered a 16×15 grid with a neat Oscars theme and Saturday NYT difficulty. BEAMING WITH PRIDE and BASKING IN THE GLOW connect to movies that won Oscars and have titles relating to light: RAY, SHINE, and SPOTLIGHT. While RAY and SHINE don’t have symmetrical theme partners in the grid, SPOTLIGHT’s balanced by 18a. [Like 61-Across’ relative Best Picture candidacy, ironically], DARK HORSE. DARK horse, SpotLIGHT, opposites. Strict adherence to theme symmetry would have precluded this theme from seeing the, uh, light of day. Indie puzzlemakers have more flexibility with grid size and symmetry than your standard newspaper crossword editors offer.
Overall, Andrew’s crossword fill tends to the contemporary, and the clues have panache and challenge. The easy themed puzzles are at Monday/Tuesday NYT level.
You can check out some sample puzzles at Aries Xword as well as on the Rows Garden page (links up at the top of the post). If you’re hankering for some good puzzles to challenge you, Andrew Ries’s offerings may be right up your alley.