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ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS

Seems like every time I pick up a magazine, there’s an article extolling the virtues of crossword puzzles. I call them my brain food, as necessary as vitamins. No day is complete without at least one grid solved. I crave the stimulation and I’m grouchy when deprived. You’ll find one in most magazines and newspapers. The very best are from the New York Times.

I began my first NYT puzzle with military precision, answering the clues in numerical order: across, down and then back again, a loop that eventually filled in the puzzle but took a long time. Seemed like there had to be a better way.

Bit by bit, I learned little tricks that helped. Completing corner boxes first often makes solving the rest of the puzzle easier. If the subtitle refers to a numbered clue, start there and build around it. Read clues with different inflections. Sewer can be a person who sews or a city’s waste system. Consider whether the clue is a verb or a noun. Is it bait as in “to lure” or bait as in “fishhook food?” Clues with question marks are often puns (be prepared for groaners).

With the New York Times, crossword puzzles become more difficult as the week progresses. Mondays through Thursdays are easy-to-medium. Fridays are notoriously hard. Saturdays can leave you stumped and cursing the devious minds that create them.

And then there’s the Sunday puzzle, guaranteed to challenge but never overwhelm. There’s always a theme, the most significant answers will connect to it. The grid is bigger, much bigger, than the daily versions, and meant to be savored with a cup of tea on the most comfortable chair you’ve got, preferably by a sunny window.

The only drawback to NYT puzzles is they’ve turned me into a crossword snob. I dropped the local newspaper that carried them—too many times where the carrier didn’t deliver.  A regular NYT subscription is expensive, not to mention that it can take up to a week after publication before I get it in the mail. There are paid online versions available but they’re not the same. I need to move freely around the grid, not click and type.

I’ve bought just about every NYT puzzle book collection available, so getting my crossword fix means settling for less. Nothing quite matches the NYT’s wit, although the Wall Street Journal is a real contender. Merl Reagle used to create some wonderfully clever puzzles, but, sadly, he’s gone. Simon and Schuster publishes bargain mega-collections—300 puzzles per book—but they’re not as challenging. I tend to go through them quickly, four puzzles a day.

But all is not lost. The NYT puts out a Crossword Page-A-Day Calendar. (Buying link sent to partner, nudge, nudge, wink, wink.) Don’t ask why I took this long to find it. Either I was oblivious, or I knew about it but thought the print size looked absurdly small.

So this Christmas morning, I look forward to continuing a tradition that began during WWII as a way to entertain war-weary readers. I’ll put on holiday music and then settle under a cozy throw in the sunroom, pen and puzzle in hand, with a mug of ginger tea and a box of See’s candies—dark chocolates, of course—close by.

Heaven.

For an intriguing look at the world of cruciverbalism, check out WORDPLAY, a 2006 documentary by Patrick Creadon. The film features Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, crossword constructor Merl Reagle, and various celebrity crossword lovers.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

ALL THE MURMURING BONES

One for the house, one for the Church and one for the sea.

Every so often a book comes along that absolutely enthralls me and I can’t wait to  share my delight.  This time it’s a Gothic tale infused with Irish folklore, A.G. (Angela) Slatter’s latest, ALL THE MURMURING BONES.

Long ago, the O’Malley’s made a deadly deal with the Merfolk: one child each generation in exchange for prosperity and power.

But they didn’t keep up their end of the bargain and have fallen on hard times. Miren O’Malley, abandoned by her parents, is the family’s last hope, pledged against her will to marry a cruel cousin in the hopes they’ll breed and regain the clan’s fortune. Miren escapes and undertakes a harrowing journey to find the truth about her past and shape her future.

I love strong heroines, and Miren rates highly in that regard. She’s prone to musing, but quick-witted and swift to action when the situation demands it. I enjoyed her growth as a character from a rather naive, protected girl to a determined young woman.

On the surface, the plot sounds like a familiar story: a young woman running away to escape an arranged marriage, cruel men wanting her power, heartless guardians, missing parents. In lesser hands, these elements would come off as trite but Slatter weaves them into a story that mesmerizes. The first chapter, in particular, is absolutely gorgeous, drawing you into a richly atmospheric tale full of mystery and dark delights.

Slatter’s writing is so good it’s often breathtaking. And she knows how to keep your interest, infusing folkloric stories, introducing fantastic characters–a kelpie, a singing automaton, grim mermaids, to name but a few–while staying true to the pulse of the central story.

My only quibble is that Miren’s internal dialogue feels tiresome after a while, but it fits the young adult genre and her character arc so that’s a minor nit. The ending, while predictable, was still heart-stopping.

Lovers of dark fantasy, this book is for you!